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Sunday, Apr 20, 2014
Joe Henderson

Henderson: Where was that Seattle non-stop flight when I needed it?

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Seattle is a wonderful city in a most desirable part of the country, and when I traveled a lot I hated to go there. Sounds contradictory, right?

You wouldn’t think so if you experienced the joy of trying to get from here to Sea-Tac International Airport. There were no nonstop flights from Tampa, so travelers always had to make a connection — Atlanta, Dallas, wherever. That added two or three hours at least onto a trip that was already an ordeal.

So, for anyone who travels to the West Coast from here, it was joyful to read that the trip just got easier. Beginning June 20, Alaska Airlines will, hallelujah, operate daily non-stops between Tampa and Seattle.

I’ve given Tampa’s airport chief, Joe Lopano, a measure of grief over his multiple raises in salary in his relatively short time here, but I swear I was almost ready to chip in a couple of bucks to the Lopano Swimming Pool Expansion Fund after reading this news.

I have my reasons for this.

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The worst flight among many hundreds I have taken was a redeye home from Seattle after a football game a few years ago. The first clue involved the word “redeye.” The second tipoff was this phrase: fully-loaded 757.

So I’m crammed up against the bulkhead, two big guys to my left, when some a 300-pound man-mountain waddles down the aisle and settles into the seat in front of me. Upon wheels up, he fully reclined his seat to the point where his bald head was about 6 inches from my face.

Coffee? Tea? Claustrophobia?

After about 41⁄2 hours of this confined joy at 36,000 feet, we arrived late in Atlanta. I got to experience more joy at the Delta Air Lines counter trying to re-book a missed connection.

Yeah, nonstop is better.

One thing Lopano seems to be particularly good at — besides getting raises, I mean — is getting the message out that Tampa International has been badly underserved. That message seems to be working.

He is expanding service into Cuba. He cut deals to open nonstop flights to Zurich with Edelweiss Air, and to Panama City with Copa. The latter deal helps open the South American markets for Tampa commerce, which we know is crucial for growth.

Getting to the West Coast more conveniently is just as important, though. Airport officials say more than 320 people fly between here and Seattle every day (and I think all of them were on my redeye that night), and they go for a variety of reasons. Some go on business, some take in the sights, and some might now use Seattle as a way station to get to Alaska.

The next phase is adding nonstops to places like San Francisco and San Diego, and every little bit helps. For business people particularly, being able to get where they want to go without wasting time on connections is vital, or did you miss how icy things were Wednesday in Atlanta?

For a city that wants to do business and finds itself competing with Orlando, Miami and now increasingly aggressive Fort Lauderdale for these types of flights, this isn’t just a small victory.

Travelers may still have to put up with 300-pound guys and all the other inconveniences of air travel today, but any long trip where you don’t have to stop in Atlanta is a good one.

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