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Lopano helps Tampa International Airport keep soaring

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Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 02:56 AM

TAMPA The chief executive of Tampa International Airport visited Pinellas County in late October to present his master plan update, armed with an arsenal of charts and a pithy quote from his Tampa presentation earlier that day.

"How is it I can recruit a non-stop flight between Tampa and Zurich, Switzerland, and I can't get a non-stop bus between downtown Tampa and the airport," Joe Lopano told the gathering in St. Petersburg.

It was a classic Lopano one-liner, noting an accomplishment and promoting a goal with self-deprecating humor. But like most airport issues, even a seemingly simple matter of bus service is more complicated than it appears.

On Dec. 31, Lopano will complete his second year as head of Tampa International Airport. His is a high-profile job. The airport doesn't just play host to almost 17 million passengers a year; it's considered a linchpin in the area's economic development efforts, and its national reputation as a well-run airport is a source of considerable local pride.

Such is the airport's reputation that Lopano's predecessor resigned after tension with the local board – and still was quickly tapped to run Atlanta's airport, one of the busiest in the country.

Lopano's tenure is barely out of its infancy, but after two years at the helm, some accomplishments are clearly apparent. Others, including key goals like recruiting more international flights, are still promises-in-waiting and could take years to fulfill.

"I think our proudest accomplishment is to begin to turn around a decline in our revenue and bottom line profit," Lopano said, referring to the impact in recent years of the economic decline on air travel.

Under Lopano, airport profits improved with new concessions, improvements to the terminals and more attention to finding fresh sources of revenue — down to offering car detailing for parking garage customers.

Perhaps no initiative will shine the spotlight more brightly on Lopano than his efforts to increase the number of international flights. Previous airport director Louis Miller, who opposed most incentives to recruit flights, did not add as many international routes as some in the community and on the new board wanted, which created tension between Miller and the board.

Lopano launched a plan to stimulate new business on airport property, a goal of new board members. He's allocated millions of dollars for improvements to preserve the airport's reputation as one of the nation's best and created the airport's first incentive plan to recruit international and long-distance domestic flights.

That plan helped secure a weekly non-stop flight to Zurich that began in May, backed by a $750,000, two-year incentive program.

During the first five months of service, the Tampa-Zurich flights filled slightly less than 70 percent of Airbus A330's 332 seats. Edelweiss filled 58 percent of seats on a slightly smaller aircraft flying between Zurich and Orlando from July through mid-September 2011.

Without financial figures the airline keeps proprietary, the success of the Zurich-Tampa flight won't be known until the incentive expires and Edelweiss announces whether it will continue the flights. Lopano, though, said the flight is exceeding expectations.

He also expects to eventually land more international flights.

"We are meeting airline executives not just once but on a regular basis," Lopano said, referencing worldwide trips to visit and wine and dine officials. "When the economy turns around and airlines take deliveries of more aircraft, we will know we are on their radar."

Ridership on international flights serving Tampa in October increased 12.6 percent compared with a year ago to almost 37,000 passengers, bolstered by Cuba charter service and daily flights serving London, along with the new Switzerland flight.

Lopano also will be measured by whether Tampa can gain ridership that now heads to Orlando.

Since his recruitment from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, where he was vice president of marketing and terminal operations, Lopano has maintained that Tampa could gain market share from local travelers who drive to Orlando's airport for international or domestic flights.

So far, Orlando has increased its lead.

This year, Tampa was able to add the Switzerland flight, bringing the number of international destinations to 10, while at least eight airlines have expanded their Tampa presence by adding flights to various domestic markets.

Orlando, by comparison, has added flights this year to Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico City and Monterrey, Mexico, Trinidad, the Dominican Republic and Newfoundland, along with two dozen new domestic flights. Travelers can leave from Orlando to 34 international destinations.

Lopano acknowledges Tampa is likely to never reach Orlando numbers but says our airport has to do better. Over time, he says, it will.

"The reality is Orlando and Disney have had a drive for international traffic growth for 40 years," Lopano said. "We will never have the international flight patterns Orlando has but we can get more. We are not getting our fair share."

Tampa's strength is with domestic flights, in particular east of the Mississippi, where competition on many routes keeps air fares relatively low.

"We have an extreme challenge going West," said Lopano, whose staff has been pursuing flights with Alaska Airlines, which operates a hub in Seattle, and United Airlines and Virgin America, which have hubs in San Francisco.

After two years, Lopano has the confidence of his board, which authorized a $50,000 raise during his first year and another $15,000 raise in October. That raised his annual base salary to $315,000, and his overall compensation package to $370,000.

"Joe has exceeded expectations," said Steve Burton, aviation authority board chairman. "Developing an airport takes a lot of time, but if we aren't trying, we aren't going to get it."

Burton said he is pleased with how effective Lopano has been behind the scenes in collaborative efforts with other economic development agencies.

Previous airport administrations worked with business partners throughout the region, but collaboration among economic development agencies has reached a new level of focus in recent months.

That's a cause championed by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, also an aviation authority board member, who wants the area to pursue new job fields and develop higher-wage jobs.

"In the bigger picture, Lopano has re-established the brand of Tampa International Airport as Tampa Bay International Airport," Hillsborough County Commissioner and aviation authority board member Victor Crist said. "He's reaching out to other counties in addition to working with the board on its plan that opens the airport up as more of an economic development engine."

The transition to Lopano's tenure involved the customary tension when a top executive brings in some of his own people — and more — as board members openly criticized how previous administrations operated in some areas. But many former staff members were recruited to key positions at major airports or in private sector jobs.

"There are bound to be disputes," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a Lopano advocate who is not on the aviation authority board. "But not all tension is bad if people butt heads in a respectful way."

One such opportunity could arise today, when Lopano is expected to make a pitch for express bus service between downtown and the airport. That could conflict with Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority issues of too few buses, operators and funds to provide the service it wants.

An even more difficult and lengthy challenge is to recruit a flight to a Latin America hub to help the local business community establish better ties and provide an alternative to Orlando for leisure and family travel.

Lopano has told the story about how it took him 10 years to get Qantas to start a flight between Dallas and Australia.

"They finally did," he says, delivering another punch line. "After I got to Tampa."


tjackovics@tampatribune (813) 259-7817

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