CLEARWATER — Planning for the future at the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport traditionally is an exercise in guarding against over-optimism, and this year is no different.
That's because the airport, which is owned by Pinellas County, doesn't place big bets by going into debt on expansion or improvement projects.
"We've got to be very cautious," Airport Director Thomas Jewsbury says. "We have a pay-as-you-go philosophy."
And that's no surprise considering how the airport has ridden a roller-coaster of growth and contraction for decades. Passenger traffic peaked in 1984, 1995 and 2004, only to drop way off each time. Two years after the last peak, passenger counts had fallen by more than two-thirds, and did not recover to their pre-recession high for nine years.
Now, however, the airport is in its fifth year of double-digit growth. It has vacant land it could develop. A major highway project will require moving the airport's main entrance and re-arranging parking. And its main airline is thinking about expanding its footprint. So this seems like a good time to update the airport's master plan.
That effort kicks off Nov. 30 with an open invitation to the public, and it is expected to unfold over the next 18 months with regular opportunities for interested residents and the Pinellas County Commission to influence what will be a 20-year plan for improvements.
"Everyone gets to weigh in," says Douglas DeCarlo, aviation programs manager at ESA, a Tampa firm the airport has hired to help develop the plan. "It's the community's vision of the airport too — what they'd like to see, where they see problems or what vision they have of the future of the way it could serve the community's transportation needs."
Here are a few areas the effort is likely to focus on:
Passenger counts are higher than ever. Last year, the airport saw more than 1.8 million passengers. This year, airport officials are confident they'll see 2 million.
But one airline, Allegiant, carries the vast majority of those passengers. Allegiant has a larger presence at only two airports: Orlando-Sanford and Las Vegas, where it is based. St. Pete-Clearwater also has two smaller airlines: Sunwing, with flights to Halifax and Toronto, and Sun Country, which flies casino lovers to and from the Gulfport/Biloxi airport. In all, the three serve 62 destinations.
The terminal itself is long and skinny, and there are two separate ticketing and departure gate areas and, thus, two separate Transportation Security Administration checkpoints. Airport officials wonder whether they can consolidate some of those spaces to make operations more efficient.
Meanwhile, Allegiant has talked to airport officials about maybe constructing its own 40,000-square-foot building at its own expense to the west of the terminal building. No agreement has been signed, Jewsbury said, but Allegiant has an architect and is looking at an area where UPS used to sort packages for delivery before leaving the airport last month for a larger space at Tampa International Airport.
With 127 acres, the former Airco golf course to the east of the airport is a rare piece of large, undeveloped property in Florida's most densely developed county.
The airport-owned course closed in 2011, and already there is zoning in place that would allow aviation uses on 45 acres, light industry on 72 acres and hotels on 10.
But in addition to that, airport officials say they are committed to keep a green buffer between whatever is developed on the old Airco site and residential areas of Feather Sound further to the east.
On the other side of the airport, just off the Bayside Bridge, the airport has nearly 10 more developable acres that once were home to the 94th Aero Squadron restaurant, a collection of shops called Boatyard Village and the Turtle Club.
The construction of the state's Gateway Expressway, a toll road connecting the Bayside Bridge to Interstate 275, will take a little of the airport's property and force the relocation of its main entrance and traffic signal to the south.
With the airport's growth, parking already is a big issue. The airport has nearly doubled its parking over the last couple of years. Soon it will launch a $13 million project to expand and reconfigure its long-term parking lot. That, Jewsbury says, is necessary because the Gateway Express project.
One thing that's not in the plan: a runway extension. The airport's main runway was extended about 10 years ago, and now can accommodate aircraft up to 747s.
The airport's last master plan identified up to $223 million in capital improvements projects, but since 2004 less than half of that has been spent. The biggest of those projects included a $20 million renovation of the terminal and a $14.5 million extension of the main runway, both mostly paid for by grants from the Federal Aviation Administration and, to a lesser degree, the Florida Department of Transportation.
Shortly after the 2004 master plan was finished, the airport's main airline at the time, ATA Airlines, filed for bankruptcy protection for leaving the airport. And Southeast Airlines of Largo went out of business. Fuel costs rose. The Great Recession hit.
Then in 2006, "Allegiant Air came along and did for the airport what Jesus did for Lazarus," said Lou Claudio, one of two residents from Safety Harbor to serve on the airport's noise abatement task force. That was good for the airport, but its "gain has been our pain," he said.
At one time, more than half of Allegiant's fleet consisted of McDonnell Douglas MD-80s, an aging and noisy jet that the New York Times once called the "jalopy of the skies." Purchased from foreign airlines, Allegiant's MD-80s had an average age of 27, the Tampa Bay Times reported last year, and had mechanical failures more often the same models flown by Delta or American Airlines.
Today, they are gone from St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and, as of August, have been replaced by newer, quieter Airbus A319s and A320s. (Nationwide, Allegiant plans to retire all of its MD-80s by the end of 2018 — a year sooner than previously planned.)
Getting rid of the MD-80s helped, Claudio said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times, but if the master plan is going to look at the expansion of the airport, then the Pinellas County Commission, the landlord for the airport, needs to take neighbors' ability to sleep into consideration.
Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub agrees.
"My hope would be that when they look at the plan going forward they keep in mind the quality of life of our residents and try to make sure they respect the tranquil environment that we have," Ayoub said.
We will, Jewsbury said. Already the airport is more pro-active on noise than it used to be, and part of the master planning process will include taking the forecast of future air traffic, modeling its noise and ensuring it doesn't expand into residential areas. Through its noise abatement task force, it looks at where complaints are coming from and looks for ways to mitigate the problem, often by working to keep planes over water and away from residential areas.
"We can't eliminate the noise," Jewsbury said, but "on the community's behalf, we try to find ways to minimize any disruption."
Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times
ST. PETE-CLEARWATER INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Passengers: 1.8 million-plus
Size: 1,900 acres
Runways: 9,730 feet long and 5,903 feet long
Destinations served: 62 via non-stop flights
Take-offs and landings: 113,103
Notable neighbor: U.S. Coast Guard, which owns its own facility, the guard's busiest air station in the nation.
Source: St. Pete-Clearwater Airport. Passenger and flight information are for 2016.
If you go
What: St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport master plan public launch
When: 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30
Where: Hilton St. Pete Carillon Park, 950 Lake Carillon Drive, St. Petersburg
More information: piemasterplan.com