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    Passenger traffic slows down at airport

    Grants and other income keep the airport profitable, but it has yet to climb back from a falloff since Sept. 11.

    [Times file photo: Jim Damaske]
    St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport had expected 750,000 passengers this year, but now estimates it will see just 560,000. It is trying to bring in more airlines to boost revenue. Airport officials estimate each arriving passenger spends about $992 in the county.

    By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 15, 2002

    Every time a passenger walks into St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, the airport loses more than $5.

    The airport still makes an annual profit because of federal and state aviation grants, income from its adjacent rental properties and its golf course.

    But the fact that the airport is losing money on its flights shows just how much ground the airport has to cover since Sept. 11 and the nation's economic downturn.

    "It was catastrophic," David Metz, the airport director, said Tuesday of last fall's events.

    Metz presented bleak numbers Tuesday to county commissioners at a workshop on next year's budget.

    "We will pull out of this, but it's not going to happen quickly," he said.

    In 2001, the airport boasted 700,000 passengers a year and was making plans to see 750,000 this year. Now, the airport estimates it will see just 560,000 passengers this year, and projects the same for next year.

    The airport lost about 100,000 passengers last fall when Canada 3000 went bankrupt, Metz said. The charter airline had flown into Pinellas several times a week.

    The airport's budget for next year projects it will make more than $8.8-million and spend $8.7-million, giving it just over $123,000 in profits.

    Airport staffers project they will spend $3-million more to operate the terminal and pay for runway and airfield maintenance than they will recoup in payments from airlines, rental cars and concessions.

    The airport is working on ways to boost revenue and is close to signing contracts with some new airlines, Metz said. Money from those charters isn't included in the budget projections.

    The airport also is working on ways to offer more incentives to airlines to locate there, he said. Bringing in more airlines would be more effective in raising money than boosting landing or rental fees, he said. The airport's statistics show most of its fees are similar to other Florida airports.

    Airport officials also hope to extend the runway to 10,000 feet, allowing trans-Atlantic flights to land.

    Metz estimated that the airport needs to climb back to about 750,000 passengers a year before it makes a profit from its flight operations. He said it's not unusual for small airports to lose money on flights and make it up on rental income.

    Even though the airport isn't making money on flights, he said, it still brings cash into Pinellas. The airport estimates each arriving passenger spends about $992 in the county.

    Some commissioners said that's reason enough to support the airport.

    "I'm not unduly alarmed," said Commission Chairman Barbara Sheen Todd. "I know there are some good things in the wings."

    Commissioner Calvin Harris said the airport is going in the right direction.

    "I think we've settled on the niche of the airport," he said.

    It needs to pursue more charter flights and work with its airlines on marketing, he said.

    But Commissioner Karen Seel said the county needs to take a hard look at how to boost profits. She's not sure the airport is the best use for the land, especially with the much larger Tampa International Airport just across the bay.

    "How much local and federal money do you keep spending before you make a decision whether it's a profitable and worthwhile investment?" she said.

    But Seel added that that "it may be too late" to redevelop there because of federal money that's been poured into it. The county also has agreements with the Coast Guard and a U.S. Army training center for Blackhawk helicopters to operate there.

    Seel said she also wants airport officials to do more to address residents' worries about jet noise before extending the runway.

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