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TIA – A Man, A Plan, We’re Fans, So Far

October 24, 2011

This weekend brought us this article in the Tribune “Time will judge changes by Tampa International’s Lopano”  Why, yes, yes it will. .Though that seems self-evident. .

That fact notwithstanding, there are a few things in the article that merit discussion. For instance:

But it could take years to assess the impact of Lopano’s efforts to fulfill the board’s new mandate for Tampa International to be the “major driver in the economic growth of the Tampa Bay Region.”

The odd thing is that having TIA as an economic engine for the Tampa Bay region is not a new mandate.  Whether it is a sputtering Yugo, middle of the pack Camry or a Ferrari, it is – and pretty much always has been – an economic engine.  The question is what kind of engine it will it be.  The board and the new director are looking more towards high performance – as they should.

And this about air service route incentives:

Tampa’s incentive programs run up to two years, however, after which an airline must determine if there’s sufficient demand to continue a flight when the incentives run out. Today’s celebrations can become tomorrow’s disappointment, a dynamic that has bedeviled many U.S. airports.

Tampasphere is well aware that incentives have mixed effectiveness.  However, in the air service market’s present conditions, not having incentives is even less effective.  That is why airports in cities like Dallas, Toronto, Miami, and many others have incentive programs. (Orlando provides incentives, too, though they do not have an official program)  Another airport using incentives is BWI, which we know because the Tribune article tells us:

But Tampa International struck out for the second consecutive year in its attempt to recruit Condor Airlines to fly to Frankfurt, one of five international target markets Lopano identified along with Mexico City, Brazil, Colombia and Panama.

Condor decided to fly out of Baltimore despite a July presentation from Tampa executives that Lopano said in his self-evaluation for the board was “1,100 times greater than had been previously presented.”

Officials at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport declined to reveal the incentive package they offered Condor, but said they’d been working with the German airline for a number of years.

“Developing air service does, in some cases, take years,” spokesman Jonathan Dean said, adding that the real motivation for the new service was passenger demand.

So TIA lost out on some service to another airport that offered incentives. What this tells Tampasphere is that incentive programs are important to make TIA competitive.  It also tells us that the process takes time.  Before the present director began “his brief tenure of nine months,” TIA was losing international passengers and service. (Take this, for instance, from a few years ago)  Since then, there have been positives, including more service to London, flights to Cuba, and the announcement of service to Zurich.  That all seems quite good to us.

Sure, we would all like service to Latin America (yes, Cuba is Latin America, but we are looking more towards regularly scheduled service), but, as the article itself points out, these things take time.  And, yes, Orlando is competition for flights, but that is why we need an aggressive approach rather than to just throw up our hands in despair.

One other thing:

It will also take time to assess the long-term value of airport concessions and future development of vacant airport property, given market uncertainties and typical vendor turnover at airports

An example of the volatility is the airport’s economy parking garage. Planned during a booming economy, it stands half-empty much of the year, a monument to the nation’s economy gone awry.

Tampasphere is also well aware that it takes time to see if projects work as planned.  The example of the economy parking garages is a good one.  Built under the previous director, the garages may be under performing now.  (In fact, the second one was built before planned: “So Miller will tell his board Thursday that a second economy garage will have to be in place by 2008, two years earlier than planned.”)

This may prove to be a poor investment by the previous administration. On the other hand it may prove to have been a good investment as, hopefully, the economy improves and the airport passenger counts increase under the aggressive leadership of the present director. (And as we noted, it appears that the present director wants to connect the garages to the main airport with a people mover, which is a very good idea and should help their performance. See here and here)

In sum, we agree that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as it were.  Tampasphere is not about people making decisions – it is about their policies, and it will take time to see if the changes at the airport are a net benefit.  However, so far, we see many positives and few negatives with the job the director has done.  We are very pleased he has presented a vision and is pursuing it.  We are even more pleased that his vision is aggressive promotion of TIA.  This area has had enough complacency.  As we have said before, “We don’t think Tampa Bay should settle for just ‘ok’ when ‘really good’ (or even ‘excellent’) is just as easy to do.”    We are glad the airport director seems to agree with us.  We’ll see what happens.

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