CLEARWATER — The St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport is on track to serve 1 million passengers this year, and airport leaders are forecasting more passengers and more destinations after agreeing to a new five-year operating deal with its main passenger carrier, Allegiant Air.
The contract with Allegiant will give the airport, which is owned by Pinellas County, an estimated $5 million in landing and facility fees and another $21 million from passenger spending on car rentals, parking and concessions.
The deal, which was unanimously approved by the Pinellas County Commission Tuesday, assumes a passenger growth rate of 4 percent, which would see the airport cater to almost 1.3 million passengers by 2018.
Part of the optimism stems from Allegiant’s decision to add 17 more Airbus-320s to its fleet over the next two years. The planes seat 177 passengers, more than the MD-80s and 747s that make up most of Allegiant’s 64-aircraft fleet, and have a greater flying range. That puts destinations such as Seattle and Las Vegas within reach, said airport Director Noah Lagos.
The airline is also considering adding flights to Mexico and the Caribbean, he said.
“It opens up a field of new opportunities because of their range and their capacity,” he said.
The airline in August added six destinations to its service, including flights to Ohio and New York. As an incentive to keep growing, the new contract waives airport fees for as much as two years for flights to and from new destinations. Airport leaders have also committed to pay for direct marketing in as many as three new cities — as much as $75,000.
Allegiant flies about 92 percent of the airport’s passengers — roughly 939,000 passengers this year — flying to 31 destinations. It typically operates low-cost, nonstop flights between smaller airports
The airline began flying in and out of St. Pete-Clearwater in November 2006, when it flew to 12 cities and averaged 29 flights a week. The initial five-year contract expired in 2011, but economic uncertainty made delayed a longer-term agreement; so the airline signed a two-year deal maintaining the status quo that expires next month.
After seven years in which airport fees have remained fixed, the cost of terminal and passenger-screening will be raised after the first year of the contract and for another two additional years. The passenger-screening hike is to cover the cost of providing exit gate security, which the Federal Aviation Administration is no longer providing, Lagos said.
Despite the increase, St. Pete-Clearwater’s fees are the lowest on a cost-per-passenger basis compared to the other 15 airports Allegiant serves.
The airline’s success is also helping Pinellas’s record tourism numbers, Lagos said. Passengers flying Allegiant are projected to book about 28,000 hotel room nights in Pinellas this year, up from about 7,000 in 2009.
In addition to tourists, the airline houses seven planes at the airport, meaning crews and maintenance workers contribute to the local economy, he said.
Commissioners said they were delighted with the deal and the airport’s growth. Surpassing 1 million passengers for 2013 represents a 15-percent increase from 2012.
“You have done an outstanding job,” said Commission Chairman Ken Welch. “To be back to a million passengers is a big deal for this county.”