Joe Lopano landed the top job at Tampa International Airport with a mandate to increase international flights, a longtime sore spot because Tampa has about three dozen weekly international flights while Orlando boasts more than 200.
On Friday, Lopano again landed in Tampa, this time among 280 passengers on Edelweiss Air's inaugural flight linking Tampa and Zurich, Switzerland, the first international flight he has recruited.
The new service reflects an enhanced aviation authority focus on regional business development, a new airport strategy to offer financial incentives to airlines and Lopano's aggressive marketing outlook, including openly challenging Orlando for business.
"This flight is a big step toward keeping our local passengers flying out of Tampa," Lopano said after Friday's nine-hour, 50-minute flight. "Those days of driving up I-4 to Orlando International Airport are over."
Tampa's outbound flight Friday night carried 180 passengers on the 333-seat Airbus A330, including 50 who only learned of their destination after they picked up their boarding passes. They were sent on a mystery tour by AAA Travel.
If Tampa hopes to succeed with Edelweiss, it will have to do something the airline couldn't do last year when it flew to Orlando and its theme parks: draw large numbers of passengers.
Edelweiss filled an average of 58 percent of its seats on weekly flights between Orlando and Zurich from July through mid-September 2011, Orlando airport officials reported.
That compares with an average of 87 percent of seats filled by all foreign carriers serving Orlando during that period, U.S. Department of Transportation data show.
Orlando got its flight after Edelweiss canceled its original plan to use its new Airbus on a Zurich-Tokyo route after the nuclear power plant disaster in Japan affected travel projections on that route.
Edelweiss would not disclose how many passengers the Tampa flights would require to show a profit and be continued. Airlines generally do not disclose that data or advance sales for competitive reasons.
"This flight is the first intercontinental flight connecting the Tampa Bay area to continental Europe in 15 years," said Michael Trestl, business development manager for Edelweiss Air in Zurich.
"The whole region will see a lot of visitors coming from Switzerland and other European countries in the future," said Trestl, who in September characterized Orlando ridership as "generally satisfactory.''
Unlike Orlando's airport, which did not provide Edelweiss with incentives, Tampa International and local visitors and economic development agencies chipped in more than $700,000 in cash and in-kind services to promote and support the twice-weekly flights. They will become weekly flights in the summer off-season.
Regardless of how successful the Zurich flights become, Lopano said they are merely the first step in the airport's quest to expand international service, including highly coveted Central and South American flights.
"We have laid the groundwork with this flight," he said, referring to an increase in the airport's marketing budget and cooperative efforts with visitors bureaus and local business groups.
Tampa regional business officials think Zurich's strengths in life sciences, banking, financial and insurance industries are a good match with the local scene.
Edeweiss is marketing Zurich as a gateway with plentiful connecting flights to more than 40 European cities, from Stockholm and Moscow to Istanbul and Madrid, with 70- to 90-minute connecting times.
That's what prompted Jovana Vadovic of Tampa to book the first outbound flight from Tampa on Friday night. Vadovic and her two daughters will reach their final destination in Belgrade, Serbia, with convenient connections at Zurich.
"And the price for my ticket was $1,350, cheaper than what it's been before," she said.