Sunday, January 18, 2015

Efforts to lure airlines paying dividends at Tampa Bay’s airports

CLEARWATER — The list of U.S. and international cities with flights into the Tampa Bay area’s two airports seems to grow every few months.

Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Richmond, Va. and Tulsa, Okla. are among the domestic cities with direct flights on Allegiant Airlines starting this year at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, one of the budget carrier’s busiest destinations.

Across the bay at Tampa International Airport, direct air service from Europe and Latin America continues to expand with aviation giants such as Edelweiss, Copa Airlines and, recently, Germany’s Lufthansa.

Airport officials and tourism leaders have invested serious time and money in luring these airlines, both large and small, in recent years. They say it already is paying off in the scores of new travelers that now have easy access to Florida’s Gulf Coast.

“It’s the destination that drives this market,” said Noah Lagos, director of the St. Pete-Clearwater airport in Clearwater.

In 2006, the tourism appeal of the area’s beaches drew a nascent Allegiant Airlines to make Pinellas County one of its first destinations as the leisure air company expanded from its Las-Vegas base, Lagos said.

The airline has grown rapidly in the past decade and will fly non-stop to 41 U.S. cities this year based on routes that already have been announced, with more additions expected.

The airport enjoyed the second-busiest year in the county-owned facility’s history last year, with 1.24 million passengers flown here primarily by Allegiant, which accounts for 95 percent of all passengers.

Lagos this year fully expects to break the 2004 passenger record of 1.3 million and suspects there will be even more new routes announced before the end of December.

“There are more to come, I know that. I don’t know when those announcements are going to be and I don’t know what they are,” he said.

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Tampa International Airport in the past three years has opened up global markets by capturing several top international carriers that previously showed interest only in Miami and Orlando.

Raising the profile of the Tampa Bay area with airline executives and tour operators in Europe and Latin America has been a key goal for CEO Joe Lopano since taking charge in 2011.

“People are now starting to understand Tampa-St. Pete as a wonderful destination, one that really hasn’t been discovered before. When I first got here, that became our prime objective: to create awareness of this area,” he said.

Since 2010, international air traffic at Tampa has gone up by 53 percent and the new airlines like Panama-based Copa and Swiss carrier Edelweiss have enjoyed high passenger loads — between 75 and 90 percent capacity — prompting them to add more flights, according to airport officials.

Both airports have had strong backing from tourism agencies, economic development officials and chambers of commerce on both sides of the bay as they’ve pitched their destination to airlines around the country and world.

With both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties enjoying record visitation and hotel bed tax collections in the past couple of years, agencies are pooling their resources to bring more travelers here, regardless of whether they choose to head to the beach or to Busch Gardens.

“We always come together when we’re trying to lure an airline,” Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada said.

The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board raised $1.2 million from local business and tourism industry sources for a one-year financial incentive package to entice Copa Airlines to fly into Tampa, linking the area with the airline’s hub in Panama City that connects with 50 destinations.

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater alone has committed $200,000 in both the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years in a marketing deal with Copa, and the agency has offered similar support to other new airlines in recent years.

The agency has more than doubled its annual budget for air service development and marketing since 2012, devoting more than $559,000 in 2015.

Since Copa began flying to the area in December 2013, Latin American visitors to Pinellas County’s beaches have increased by nearly 50 percent, and VSPC has hired full-time staff to travel the region and promote the destination.

“It raises the profile of the destination within the entire region because we have a talking point: You can get here directly now. And that does create interest from other airlines,” said VSPC Director David Downing.

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Following the success of the Edelweiss flight from Zurich to Tampa that started in 2012, Germany’s Lufthansa will begin providing service in September from Frankfurt, one of the busiest hubs in Europe.

It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much incoming tourism a given airline route generates, and business travel also accounts for a good share of passengers coming and going to Latin America and Europe, says Lopano.

“Once we become established as destination of leisure, we also become a target for business opportunities,” said Lopano.

A case in point was a trade mission to Chile in December attended by the mayors of Tampa and St. Petersburg, along with business leaders and county commissioners from both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

While Allegiant Airlines historically has focused on leisure travel from smaller markets, the company’s offering of convenient, direct flights from mid-sized cities such as Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh opens the door for growth in low-cost business travel, Lagos said.

The Clearwater airport’s tagline “Tampa Bay the Easy Way” is meant to underscore its distinctiveness from its much larger neighbor across the bay for both business travelers and vacationers – a quick walk from a surface parking lot to the terminal, short lines and 50 direct flights with no layovers in big airport hubs.

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Although Tampa’s airport has received a lot of press in recent years by landing big international flights, tourism officials say St. Pete/Clearwater’s rapid growth into a multitude of new markets in the United States and Canada should not be overlooked.

“A lot of times, sure, there seems to be bigger stories in international or more well-known brands internationally, but pound for pound, it’s really hard to beat what Allegiant has brought to the table,” said Downing.

That’s in part because about 30 percent of the air company’s revenue comes from vacation package bookings, combining cheap airfares with hotels and rental cars, which translate directly into overnight hotel stays.

Lagos budgets for two new flights a year at the airport, but that’s been consistently low in the last several years.

Aside from Allegiant’s routes, the airport also serves three Canadian cities seasonally with Sunwing Airlines, a flight to Gulfport, Miss. and recently announced service to Key West and Ft. Lauderdale on Silver Airways, while a large share of daily traffic comes from corporate aviation, U.S. Coast Guard flights and UPS cargo planes.

The airport will conduct a two-year master plan study starting in 2017 to consider future needs and is in the process of making terminal and parking improvements.

Tampa International just began the first phase of construction on a massive master plan renovation and expansion project.

“We’ll be good for a few years,” said Lagos.

“There’s going to be a decision of what this airport becomes when it grows up.”

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