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  1. Opinion

Henderson: Airport's efforts connecting Tampa to more of the globe

Joe Lopano, chief executive at Tampa International Airport, welcomes the German airline Luthansa during a ceremony in September 2015.
Joe Lopano, chief executive at Tampa International Airport, welcomes the German airline Luthansa during a ceremony in September 2015.
Published Jan. 13, 2017

You always want to make a good impression when people come to call. For thousands of college football fans who visited Tampa last week for the national championship game, Tampa International Airport was the front door to what we had to offer.

I don't think I'm crawling out on a limb by saying there is a lot to like about that. TIA consistently ranks high in traveler surveys. I'm an admitted airport geek and I've seen a lot of them over the years. The one we have right here is among the best.

Sometimes, though, we don't grasp how important it is to the economic well-being of Tampa — especially going forward. Here's a number that might put that into better perspective: 18,938,100.

That's the number of passengers, inbound and outbound, who used TIA in 2016 – an 18 percent increase of 851,120 over the previous year. That's impressive, but the bigger picture is even more revealing.

Spokeswoman Janet Zink said there has been a 117.7 percent passenger increase since 2010. That's when Joe Lopano was hired as the airport CEO with a mandate to change, well, everything.

The attitude was that Tampa should concentrate on domestic flights and leave the international routes to Miami and Orlando. Many in the time-is-money passenger community felt hamstrung by that.

Sure, these people could always get where they needed to be — eventually — but the route might involve multiple plane changes, flight delays, missed connections, and hours spent watching endless loops of CNN on the TV monitors at airport gates.

It led to a showdown that eventually forced out the highly regarded Louis Miller as CEO.

Lopano took over and things haven't been the same. If you have been there recently, you know what I mean.

On Tuesday, a ceremony is planned to connect the last construction beam from the new expanded rental car center to the people mover. But the ongoing $953 million master construction plan tells only part of the story.

Lopano relentlessly pursued international flights, offering financial incentives to lure Edelweiss airline for service to Zurich. Copa airlines was next with service to Panama City. Lufthansa offers a non-stop to Frankfort.

Southwest Airlines has essentially turned Tampa into a hub. It was already known for the frequency and variety of domestic flights, and has expanded with daily service to Havana.

Travelers are about to receive another piece of the puzzle when Tampa's much-anticipated daily service to San Francisco begins Feb. 16 on United Airlines. Since we live in a connected world, this flight could be an even bigger deal for Tampa. In the past year, United added non-stop flights from San Francisco to Auckland, Australia and Singapore.

For the Tampa traveler, that means more options with fewer stops.

Do you think that's welcome?

I caught up with Tampa businessman Bill Carlson, president of the Tucker/Hall communications and consulting firm. Carlson travels all over the world, mostly on business. He was in Singapore, where he was combining a trip to a friend's wedding with business.

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For what it's worth, he also had the TV tuned to Alabama and Clemson for the national championship game. Yep, even in Singapore. I think I just heard Tampa Bay Sports Commission chief Rob Higgins weep for joy.

I asked Carlson what a straight shot there from San Francisco would have meant on this trip.

"I would have saved five to six hours compared to going through Chicago and Hong Kong," he said. "A 24-hour trip feels a lot better than a 30-hour trip. It puts us closer to Asian markets. Asia is all about guanxi (relationships) so we have to be here in person to build business and trade ties."

That's one small piece of a massive mural that constantly unfolds before us, and TIA always seems to be the front door to it all.

Contact Joe Henderson at joehtampa@gmail.com

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