CLEARWATER - Forty-one years ago, a former World War II airfield was transformed into what was generally considered to be the best airport in the world, and the first to use the “people movers” that have become standard equipment in many major airports. Now, the airport’s CEO, Joe Lapano, has unveiled the results of a $1.8-million study aimed at making Tampa International Airport even better.
“The design of the airport was brilliant 41 years ago” but is now showing its age,” Lapono told the Clearwater City Council at its February 4 work session. “And when we studied the problems, we found many opportunities.”
Congestion at curbside and on the nearby roadways is a major problem, and Lapano attributes much of it to rental cars that are rented in remote locations and driven to the terminal to load, unload or park. The plan advocates turning the underutilized “South Development Area” near the existing post office on the approach road to the terminal into a one-stop shopping center with rental car storage and maintenance, restaurants, hotels for humans and pets, a convenience store and other amenities. From there, passengers could step off the people-mover and onto a train for the 1.5-mile trip to the terminal.
“This (South Development Area project) will be a huge opportunity for the airport,” Lapano told the councilmembers. “This will be the most efficient rental car facility in the country.”
In addition, many of the airport’s 573 employees, and some of the nearly 6,500 employees of airlines, restaurants and other services at the airport, could be moved from the terminal to the “South Development Area” and provided with parking spaces for their cars there. That would eliminate, or at least postpone, the necessity to build a new terminal.
Terminal usage has actually declined over the past few years. “Enplanements” peaked at 9.5 million passengers a year in 2007 but then dropped to its current 8.5 million when the double-whammy of the economic crisis and the BP oil spill took a severe toll on Gulf Coast tourism, according to a graph Lapano supplied.
But Lapano expects Florida tourism to rebound in the coming years. He predicts that annual “enplanements” will reach about 14.4 million by 2031, and the main terminal passenger count, both inbound and outbound, will be double that number.
He expects to accommodate those crowds by demolishing the current Marriott Hotel and building a new one elsewhere on the airport’s property. He also plans to expand the current terminal building a bit. Government agencies such as Customs and TSA will be relocated to more central locations, and some airport businesses may be moved or eliminated.
“With that plan, we can go through 2041 without touching the north” end of the airport, Lapano said. And it will avoid the expense of building a new terminal.
“We have a brilliant airport” terminal, he said, “Let’s just stay with what we have.”
Noting that airline travel is “a pretty flat market in the U.S.” Lapano said that support services are a growing percentage of his airport’s income. But the airline picture isn’t entirely bleak because international travelers are filling some of the void, he added.
“What I showed you is going to be expensive, but it’s fundable,” Lapano told the councilmembers. “It’s going to cost over a billion (dollars). But you don’t have to spend the money until you need to.”
While praising the plan, Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said that he hopes the changes will include ground transportation to Clearwater and other Pinellas County destinations. Lapano replied that ground transportation to nearby cities is not the airport’s responsibility, but he agreed that it is sorely needed.
“I got a non-stop flight to Zurich,” Lapano said. “But I can’t get a non-stop bus to Tampa.”