Saturday, January 07, 2012

FLORIDA: First year for Tampa airport chief: Praise, promise, pressure

TAMPA --  Joe Lopano was on vacation in the final days of his first year as Tampa International Airport chief executive but showed up at his office anyway.

"I wanted to review some financial presentations in the morning and spend some time walking through the terminals," Lopano said two days before New Year's. "Then our family will spend the weekend watching football and if it's warm enough, we will get on the water to kayak."

Lopano, 57, has lived up to the energetic reputation he brought to Tampa from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, where he oversaw the marketing, customer service and real estate departments.

"High motor guy – always on the go," Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board member Joe Diaco wrote in Lopano's performance review. The five board members rated Lopano a combined average of 4.8 on a five point scale in their fiscal-year ending reviews on Sept. 30.

"Exceeds expectations," said board member Steve Burton, managing partner of Broad and Cassel's Tampa law office. "He should be given a pay increase per his contract based on superior job performance."

That sparked one of the few public hiccups in Lopano's first year in Tampa.

When the board proposed a $50,000 pay raise atop Lopano's annual $305,000 pay package, Lopano rejected it, avoiding a public relations brouhaha during the poor economy. The board deferred consideration of pay issues until 2012.

Lopano also restructured top management – a dicey task for any new leader – with little apparent turbulence.

"Basically, we laid the framework and foundation for success in 2011, whether it was creating an air service incentive program or investing in our airlines (lowering airport user fees), or pumping $30 million into projects to improve our terminal facilities," Lopano said.

Lopano's first major proposal of 2012 is a $27.6 million upgrade to the international airside terminal.

"This year it's all about teamwork, collaborating not only within our ranks but continuing to do so within the community."

Lopano's title as "chief executive" rather than "airport director" reflects the aviation authority's mission statement to be a major driver in the Tampa Bay region's economic growth.

Downtown business interests, including the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, have intensified their economic development focus. Chamber president and chief executive, Bob Rohrlack, is a close associate of Burton, the aviation authority chairman.

"We are continuing the work to support the airport and Port of Tampa," Rohrlack said. "We are focused on supporting the flights to Cuba and the upcoming flights to Zurich, Switzerland, that start in May."

A new airport initiative is a five-year, $2 million marketing and branding campaign by Paradise Advertising of St. Petersburg to help bring in more flights and markets, the airport's first such marketing agency in seven years.

"Lopano is doing a great job," Hillsborough County commissioner Mark Sharpe said. "He's charging ahead to make the airport a key driver for business and economic development in Florida."

But to keep the high praise coming, performance must match promise. Pressure will mount to recruit direct flights to Central and South America, long a goal for the business travelers and residents who must trek to Orlando or Miami for that service.

Sharpe would like to see new direct flights to the West Coast, along with new aircraft maintenance and repair facilities to create jobs in Tampa. But recruitment sometimes lies beyond what local interests can control.

For example, Tampa in part owes its Zurich flight to a change in Edelweiss Air's original plans to fly a new Airbus 330 between Switzerland and Japan. Following the nuclear plant disaster, Edelweiss shifted the airliner to Orlando. Then Tampa stepped in with Lopano's incentive package, which will provide Edelweiss $700,000 worth of subsidies.

"We can't tell airlines where to put their new airplane, but we need to control the message," Lopano said.


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