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Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: Tampa airport must expand international flights

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 04:36 PM

Ana Wallrapp runs a company in Tampa called Wallrapp Architecture and Interior Design. I've known her for years and it seems like she's always jetting off on some big project in South America. The lady spends a lot of time in airports.

A lot of time.

She can tell you all about the American Airlines hubs in Miami or Dallas-Fort Worth, where she has to catch connecting flights. Sometimes she hops over to Orlando to make a connection, or even New York's Kennedy Airport if it's really crazy.

Her life would be much simpler if Tampa International had nonstop flights to places like Sao Paulo, Brazil; Bogota, Colombia; Caracas, Venezuela; or Mexico City, but those options are not available.

Tampa International Chief Executive Joe Lopano and other local leaders, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, have been trying to change that. They joined Gov. Rick Scott in Colombia this week on a mission to generate business in Tampa. A key is adding nonstop service from Bogota.

It goes to the whole "change the economic DNA" thing Buckhorn loves to chat about, which sounds great but isn't easy to actually do.

Around here, we tend to cower in front of the Mouse on issues like these. Orlando's airport is a robust international destination because so many travelers want to visit Disney World and all the other happy places. Tampa's international travelers are more likely to be focused on business.

It can be frustrating. More flights will come when there is demand, but without flights it's harder to grow business and increase demand. That forces our intrepid traveler into some tough situations.

"Getting from one side of Miami International to the other is a nightmare, and a lot of the flights I need to catch out of Miami leave at 7 a.m.," Wallrapp said. "The only way I can make that is to leave Tampa the night before and stay in a hotel. That adds to the expense.

"There are a lot of weather-related delays coming out of Miami, so that can throw me way behind schedule."

When customers are ready to do business, they don't want to hear you're stuck at the gate waiting out a thunderstorm.

In the two years since he came to Tampa, Lopano has worked to expand international service. It hasn't always been popular. There were skeptics when Lopano cut a deal with Edelweiss Airlines for a weekly nonstop flight to Zurich, sweetened with $750,000 in incentives. Lopano said ridership has exceeded expectations.

That's the type of thing Tampa has to do, regardless of what Orlando has. Increasing nonstop service to South America can be a game-changer for Tampa's economy, even if it involves enticements and a little risk.

All Wallrapp knows is that making travel easier would help her business, not to mention her jet lag. Anything that cuts down the time spent in airport coffee shops and streamlines travel is good.

So when I mentioned the push to expand service between here and there, she pondered all the wasted time in Miami and responded, "I think that is an excellent idea."


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