TAMPA — The first passengers to ever fly nonstop from London’s busiest airport to Tampa International stepped on to the tarmac Wednesday afternoon, greeted by beaming local officials and sports mascots shimmying to pop music.
Regional business and tourism leaders are championing the new Virgin Atlantic route — launching with flights four times a week, increasing to daily by Nov. 28. — as a major boost for Tampa Bay’s economic engine.
With more than 190,000 seats each year, Virgin Atlantic is now the only airline to directly connect Tampa with London Heathrow. The service marks the airline’s third destination in Florida, behind Miami and Orlando.
“We’ve been chasing this partnership for decades,” airport spokesperson Emily Nipps said.
Sir Richard Branson, the airline’s British billionaire founder and president, emerged from the aircraft Wednesday donning a Buccaneers jersey and flanked by airline staff waving the Union Jack and Star-Spangled Banner. He said Tom Brady wished him a warm welcome to the city earlier that day.
“This is nothing short of amazing,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said of the new route at a press conference following the landing, in a room decked out with British memorabilia including mock red telephone boxes and signs for the Tube.
“I can’t tell you how excited we are,” said Steve Hayes, CEO of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, the Pinellas tourism arm.
More than 100 U.K. businesses are based in the Tampa Bay area, according to Tampa Bay Chamber President and chief executive Bob Rohrlack. “As our region grows, this kind of world-class connection will be key to sustaining a robust business community that thrives on international commerce,” he said earlier this year.
London Heathrow was Tampa International’s largest unserved market in Europe, according to airport staff.
The new route features a new aircraft, too: an Airbus A330neo. Virgin is the first U.K. airline to fly the aircraft, described as one of the most fuel efficient in the sky, which Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss said paves the way to “guilt-free travel.”
The launch comes on the heels of Visit Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County’s tourism agency, announcing a record-setting fiscal year of tourism collections in each month. Total taxable hotel revenue for the entire fiscal year came in at $963,632,597, putting estimated visitor spending impact in excess of $8 billion for the period, according to agency data.
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“Florida is very much the crown jewel in our leisure operations,” Weiss said at Wednesday’s press conference.
After placing third in 2019 and second the past two years, Tampa International was named best large airport in North America, according to the J.D. Power North America Airport Satisfaction Study released earlier this year. The airport now flies to more destinations than before the pandemic and passengers have returned to the sky in record numbers.