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Tampa International almost isn't

British Airways has five flights a week to TIA from the United Kingdom, but almost every other foreign carrier prefers Orlando.

Published March 9, 2004

TAMPA - Frustration wilts George Elbe's face when he talks about what he has scored and lost as the man in charge of attracting international airline service to Tampa International Airport.

Condor Air felt like paydirt when it started serving TIA in 1992. Four flights a week to Mexico and Costa Rica looked so promising the airport built an international lounge for Condor at Airside F.

Today, it's a big empty room, some of which has been commandeered for extra security lanes. Last April, tour giant Thomas Cook bought Condor, changed the name and moved it to Orlando.

That hasn't been the only loss.

"Lauda Airlines," Elbe recalled. "They brought service from Austria for two weeks. Two weeks, and they were gone. We didn't have a chance to market them. Air Aruba, bankrupt. Laker Airways, bankrupt. LTU, fell on hard times. Martinair, moved to cargo. Mexicana, with destinations two hours away, we couldn't support them.

"Is it frustrating? Well, yeah."

In a sea of successes at TIA - an airport that led the nation in recovering from the impacts of the 2001 terror attacks and is about to add its eighth low-fare carrier - international service remains disappointing at best, dismal at worst.

The prestigious British Airways has five flights a week to TIA from the United Kingdom, but almost every other foreign carrier in the world prefers to fly to the Magic Kingdom.

Ultimately, it is Tampa's location near Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Miami that frustrates TIA's ambitions to build a more vibrant array of nonstop international choices. The airport makes a good living with an array of domestic airlines, as opposed to a single, dominant carrier that characterizes a hub airport. But there are international service limits when there is no dominant domestic carrier to draw in its foreign-flag partners.

TIA's struggle to add nonstop international service is further hampered by the fact that it is trying to get a bigger share of a smaller pie. International air travel was hit harder and is recovering more slowly than domestic.

According to Airports Council International, overseas passenger departures at the nation's 25 largest airports dropped from more than 65-million in 2000 to 60.6-million in 2001 and to 56.7-million in 2002. Last year's figures are expected to show some improvement, but not much.

Good international service conveys status, but it means much more to an airport financially. For example, landing fees are based on landing weight, and long-haul international flights tend to be larger planes with more passengers.

The difference can be as much as three times the weight, and three times the fee: A British Airways Boeing 777 flight, landing at about 445,000 pounds, would pay a fee of $443.20. A Frontier Airlines Airbus 319, landing at about 134,000 pounds, would pay $133.96.

International passengers also jack up business in duty-free shops and at other concessions such as rental car services, hotels and parking facilities, all of which mean revenue to the airport and the general community.

Elbe, director of air service development, and his deputy, Trudy Carson, are responsible for attracting both international and domestic service. They keep piling up successes on the domestic side and keep struggling on the international side. Still, they plow ahead.

During February and March alone, their travel plans included Costa Rica, Dallas twice, Daytona Beach, Sarasota, Berlin and Washington, D.C. They are talking to Lufthansa, an international partner with United Airlines about service to Germany. They are trying to persuade Delta to serve San Juan and Puerto Rico (and Las Vegas) with its low-cost carrier, Song.

And they have been talking at length to Spirit Airlines, a low-fare carrier, about service to Mexico, Jamaica and Costa Rica.

But it's not going well.

"Never say never, but it's not as likely as Fort Lauderdale," said Tom Anderson, senior vice president of Spirit. "Since there isn't existing service from Tampa to Jamaica or Cancun, we don't have numbers on which to base an analysis (of demand). It's a chicken-and-egg deal. You have to have a service history to attract new service, but if you can't get new service, how do you amass a service history?"

On paper, TIA's international market is so small it barely registers. Of the nearly 16-million passengers who come through the airport each year, just 2.8 percent are classified as international passengers, served by TIA's tiny list of carriers offering nonstop service to international destinations: Air Canada (Toronto and Montreal), Cayman Airways and Bahamas Air.

By comparison, Orlando has some of TIA's failed attempts - Condor, Mexicana and German-based LTU - plus Air Canada, AirJamaica and AeroMexico. And Icelandair and Iberia and CanJet and Virgin Atlantic. About 6.4 percent of Orlando's passengers are international. Fort Lauderdale has many international carriers and 7.4 percent of its passengers fly overseas.

For Miami International Airport, the comparison to TIA is even more stark. Fully 46.9 of its passengers are international and its list of carriers flying to international destinations numbers the dozens.

"Other airlines look at our statistics and see only 2.8 percent and say, "Well, your international traffic isn't very impressive,"' Elbe said.

But the 2.8 percent doesn't include the passengers who leave TIA and connect at other airports for overseas flights.

"You come here in the afternoon and see all those Delta (Boeing) 767s leaving for Atlanta, and they're absolutely packed," said Carson. "Atlanta isn't the final destination for most of those people. They're making overseas connections. But we don't get credit for those."

Getting credit wouldn't be a big deal except that traffic demand is No. 1 on the list of factors airlines consider in deciding where to put new service.

Tampa Bay's beautiful beaches aren't enough.

"You have to be able to sell your market, demonstrate that it will support an airline's commitment," said Spirit's Anderson. "The countries you're talking about serving from Tampa all have beautiful beaches, too, so that's not necessarily a draw. Surfing isn't so great on the gulf. And Sawgrass Mills (Fort Lauderdale's mammoth outlet mall) is a huge attraction."

Despite the fact that as many as 80 percent of the foreign tourists who set their sights on Orlando also rent cars and drive to the Tampa Bay area for its attractions and beaches, TIA cannot persuade their airlines to come over here to pick them up.

Complicating TIA's already difficult challenge is the loyalty of frequent fliers.

Business travelers from the Tampa Bay area who for years have been flying to Atlanta to pick up Delta Air Lines flights to Europe, or to Miami to pick up American Airlines flights to Central and South America, prefer to stay with those carriers.

"If I could fly Delta direct to Berlin or Zurich from Tampa, I would, sure, but I can't," said John Austin, an engineer from Lakeland. "So I would rather fly somewhere and make a connection and stay in the Delta system than switch to another carrier. It's the mileage points thing, the upgrades and free tickets."

So if Continental Airlines, which has a domestic presence at TIA, decided to fly nonstop from Tampa to Berlin instead of connecting through Newark and Brussels, would Austin consider it?

"Probably not," he said.

Airlines face similar loyalty issues. Air France, for example, is an international partner to Delta. So Air France isn't going to fly into Tampa when it can fly into Delta's hub in Atlanta and support its alliance partner.

Not being a hub airport has helped TIA attract domestic service because there is no single, dominant carrier exerting pressure to keep low-fare carriers and other competition away. But there can also be a price to pay.

"Sometimes, being a hub is a negative in attracting international service," said Howard Mann, senior manager for international relations for Airports Council International, the airport trade group.

"Cincinnati is a Delta hub, so maybe they get a flight from Cincinnati to Italy because Alitalia is part in Delta's international alliance," Mann said. "Cincinnati might not be an obvious market for Italy, but build an alliance and they will come."

So the odds against TIA remain formidable.

Virgin Atlantic Airways, for example, one of the world's top airlines, serves Orlando but won't serve Tampa.

"We look at the size of the markets and the potential for inbound travel," said Bill King, senior vice president of Virgin Atlantic. "The vast majority of our inbound passengers are from the U.K., and Disney is their main attraction. Because of the proximity of Tampa and Orlando and the expense of putting infrastructure in both places, it doesn't make sense to serve both."

Yet the airline serves both JFK and Newark International Airports in the New York City area.

"Look at the size of that market," King said. "It's huge. And business fliers are a big, big component up there. If Orlando and Tampa had the business component of New York and Newark, yes, it might make a difference."

That business component thing has been a problem for TIA for years. The split between leisure and business travel is 55-45 percent, probably the highest business component in Florida after Miami. Yet airlines tend to look at Florida as a monolithic leisure travel destination where people use cheap tickets or free tickets that cost airlines money.

TIA had to fight this perception in early 2001 when it appeared that British Airways was waffling on service to the bay area. A contingent of airport and business interests from the region went to England to prove their point. Instead of scaling back or pulling out, BA increased service to Tampa.

Business has been so good that by November, BA will reconfigure the giant Boeing 777s it flies in and out of Tampa to include a business class.

"It's been a tremendous success for BA," said Delia Quiroz, director of leisure sales for the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau. "They tell us 20 percent of U.K. travelers into the United States come through TIA. It's a lucrative program for them."

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