Joe Henderson Columns
Henderson: Tampa's airport seeks international reputation
Tampa International is one of the best airports in the United States, and I should know. In my previous life as a sportswriter, I spent time in most major airports in this country and several in foreign lands. Admittedly, the majority of my jaunts were domestic. I spent so much time chasing connections in Atlanta's airport over the years, I'm surprised I wasn't declared a Georgia resident. As Florida grew, though, and the globe got smaller, it seemed like the "international" part of Tampa International got left behind. I get the whole Orlando-Disney connection and why plane loads of families go there from all over. And Miami, even with one of the most heaven-forsaken airports on the planet, is a natural gateway to South America.However, Tampa should be an international city as well, so it was good news when Edelweiss Air started nonstop service from here to Zurich. Even if all you know of Switzerland is that they make a mean cuckoo clock there, this is a big deal and hopefully the start of a lot of big deals. "We're trying to establish ourselves as having the ability to attract international flights," airport CEO Joe Lopano said. Let's stop right there. It's not easy for cities to land international flights. The price of fuel means airlines will be picky about location, and somewhere Tampa was left with the scraps. We have maybe three dozen or so each week, while Orlando has more than 200. Even this particular route comes with a caveat. Edelweiss barely filled half its seats on weekly Zurich-to-Orlando flights, meaning Orlando didn't fight hard when Tampa's airport and local tourist agencies came up with $700,000 in incentives. Even with that, this is a reasonable gamble for a city trying to increase its global standing. It's time to get in the game. "The reality is that we have a lot of international fliers here," Lopano said. "We just need more international flights. When an airplane lands here from an international destination, you have 300 people with euros in their pocket ready to spend here." International service is a big reason he was hired to succeed Louis Miller in a process that had its share of controversy. The airport's governing board made this a priority, not without good reason. "Do you know that 35 percent of the people staying at beach hotels in Pinellas County rented their car in Orlando?" Lopano said. "You have to give Disney a lot of credit for being a great attraction, but we have a lot of great attractions here, too. We are complementary, we really are." Given that, selling Tampa International as convenient to all Central Florida makes a lot of sense in a state that hungers for tourism dollars and jobs. "I came here with change in mind," Lopano said, and this is change. It is also strategic. As the economy improves, Tampa needs to make sure it is ready to capitalize. A twice-weekly nonstop from Zurich won't be a magic pill, but it's a start. Tampa International has been in a holding pattern long enough.