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Airport authority idea gets a tepid reception

A state senator proposes creating an agency in Pinellas to aid its troubled facility.

By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer
Published February 7, 2005

On the eastern shore of Tampa Bay is an airport jammed to the rafters, where parking is difficult nearly all the time and impossible during peak travel periods. Every month sets new passenger records.

On the western shore of the bay is an airport looking toward spring expecting to be barer than Mother Hubbard's cupboard.

It's enough to get some people talking about a sort of share-the-wealth scheme. Take a little of what Tampa International Airport has in abundance and give it to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, which is hemorrhaging air service.

It would save the mid-Pinellas airport and give TIA some breathing room, so a decision to build a second terminal complex might be postponed for several years.

In theory, the process would be supervised by a new Pinellas County Aviation Authority, similar to Hillsborough's. It could be followed by a regional authority that would take an even broader view.

The notion was proposed last week by state Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, after one of the two largest carriers at St. Pete-Clearwater left and the other announced its intention to go, eliminating 75 percent of the airport's business.

Right now, the Pinellas County Commission oversees airport operations. But in Sebesta's view, a dedicated airport authority, devoid of the other duties that crowd commissioners' calendars, is the only way to stop the service roller coaster than has plagued the facility for years.

"It's time to form an aviation authority in Pinellas County," Sebesta said. "The Pinellas commissioners don't have the time to really concentrate, and if you can't spend the time, the airport will bounce along the way it has been doing for 20 years."

Once that's done, Sebesta said, why not create a regional airport authority that can take into account the needs of both St. Pete-Clearwater and TIA and maybe even Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, which is hungry for service, as well?

While officials on both sides of the bay say any solution for St. Pete-Clearwater is worth discussing, enthusiasm at this point for Sebesta's idea ranges from lukewarm to nonexistent.

"If Pinellas County had an aviation authority now, there is not a single thing it could have done to avoid the current situation," said Louis Miller, executive director of Hillsborough's. "An authority couldn't have stopped Southeast Airlines from closing or ATA from pulling out."

Sebesta said he would like to see St. Pete-Clearwater set up to supplement TIA the way Sanford International supplements Orlando, taking all the international charter business and freeing up space at Orlando for scheduled airlines.

St. Pete-Clearwater director Noah Lagos isn't sure that's workable.

"The clarity for me is that Sanford was created for a dedicated purpose, to attract international charters," Lagos said. "I welcome international traffic, but we're not in a position to make the investment in facilities that makes Sanford what it is and would be required for us to do the same. We need a mix."

St. Pete-Clearwater is designing an addition to its main runway that will extend it to 10,000 feet. In hot weather, aircraft need more room to take off. A Boeing 747, fully loaded with passengers, baggage and enough fuel to reach Europe would be too heavy for a safe takeoff on the current runway.

So it would have to load less fuel and make an intermediate stop, which means additional landing fees and associated costs. One of St. Pete-Clearwater's attractions is that it costs an airline an average of about $2 per passenger to operate there compared to about $4.50 in Tampa. But add a second layer of costs for intermediate stops, and the cost advantage is lost.

Keith Wicks, assistant county administrator, has responsibility for St. Pete-Clearwater and isn't certain what the airport needs that the county isn't already giving. But he said he's open to talking about it.

"The region is growing, definitely," Wicks said. "And a lot of these things are getting a regional spin - water, transportation generally. Maybe aviation should be one of them."

Commission Chairman John Morroni said he once suggested studying a Pinellas aviation authority, but the idea went nowhere, and now he thinks it might just be another layer of bureaucracy. "But I'm not saying we shouldn't discuss it," he said. "Anything that gets people together to benefit the public is fine with me."

Commissioner Karen Seel said she, too, would be open to looking at a Pinellas or a regional authority.

"But I think we would wind up managing competition, and I don't think that's a good thing," Seel said. "I don't even think it's possible."

Indeed, airports cannot dictate to airlines where they operate. The closest thing to a Tampa-Pinellas-Sarasota regional aviation authority is the Port Authority of New York, which operates Newark, LaGuardia and Kennedy airports.

"They can't tell airlines which airports to use," Miller said. "Airlines go where they want. You couldn't tell an airline operating at Tampa that it had to go to St. Petersburg. The only way you'll get a carrier to move is to give it an economic reason, and the lower costs over there are a good start."

Representatives for several airlines said airport management was a local issue and declined to comment.

Stephen Mitchell, a member of the Hillsborough Aviation Authority, said that having St. Pete-Clearwater take international charters would ease the pressure on TIA marginally, but the extent to which it might delay construction of a second terminal complex is not a factor.

"Even though it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, it won't be a financial strain to build the second complex," Mitchell said. "We're self-sustaining, we're on a course to pay off all existing capital debt very soon. When the need is there, we will do it, and it won't be a burden at all."

Sebesta says he has no plan to file legislation to create a Pinellas Aviation Authority but will help if that's what county commissioners decide they want.

"If they're just going to let that airport go the way it has been, they ought to consider tearing it down and developing the property because it's a beautiful piece of waterfront land," Sebesta said. "But if they want to make some decisive moves, I'll help them in Tallahassee all I can."

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