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You can even sit up front

Why drive? The hop from Tampa to Sarasota takes only 25 minutes. So relax, enjoy the flight, and don't touch the pedals.

By JEAN HELLER
Published August 26, 2006


SOMEWHERE OVER TAMPA BAY - The plane shudders and yaws in a small pocket of unstable air, and Albert Gomez grabs the cushion of an adjacent seat, his knuckles white, his eyes darting from face to face around him to see if anyone else is frightened.

Gomez looks momentarily as if he could use a drink to steady his nerves.

But there is no alcohol aboard Continental Airlines flight 9372.

And if there were, there would be no flight attendant to serve it.

There is no reinforced door on the cockpit because, well, there is no cockpit.

And the right front seat, the one usually occupied by a first officer, is vacant. But it's a revenue seat, so any passenger who wants to may sit in it so as long as he keeps his hands off the steering yoke and his feet off the rudder pedals.

Welcome aboard Tampa International Airport's shortest regularly scheduled airline flight. Tampa to Sarasota. Twenty-five minutes gate to gate. Aboard a Cessna 402 that seats only nine passengers, the smallest plane any airline flies into TIA.

The trip offers a glimpse of flying most airline passengers never get - and many don't want. Below the clouds. The sun glinting off the water close enough to require sunglasses for comfort. All of the area's bridges and skylines and landmarks clearly defined.

This is real flying, when passengers get to watch the radar screen on the control panel paint little rain showers off the wings. Where they get to watch as Capt. Eric Sampson descends from his cruising altitude of 2,600 feet and nurses the twin prop down to a perfect landing on a runway that looks a lot smaller from the seat of a Boeing 767.

Sampson, by the way, holds the same air transport pilot's license as those who command the big jets, but says he wouldn't want to be working for a major airline in this economic climate.

"It's a race to the bottom," he says. "We're going to wind up with only one or two airlines before this ends."

So he files the small Continental flights, where there are no reclining seat backs to raise into the full upright position, no tray tables to stow, no oxygen mask routines to learn.

The preflight spiel consists of Sampson turning around in his seat and telling passengers, "You all know about the seat belt thing, right? And please turn off your cell phones."

On arrival, though, he does welcome passengers and invite them to fly Continental again soon.

"Wow, that was great," Gomez, a field engineer from Dallas, says with a huge grin, as happy to be safely on the ground as he is exhilarated by the brief trip back in airline time.

But pioneering spirit and all that aside, a reasonable person might ask: Why would anyone fly from Tampa to Sarasota?

In an era of terrorism fears, when passengers are advised to get to the airport two hours before domestic flights, a round trip between Tampa and Sarasota consumes five hours. In that same time, someone could drive the 108-mile round trip twice and still stop for a leisurely lunch in between.

Yet on Wednesday everyone aboard flight 9371, Tampa to Sarasota, and flight 9372, Sarasota to Tampa, had a pretty good reason.

Gail Toscano and her husband, Andrew, of Brick, N.J., had been in West Palm Beach visiting relatives and were on their way to Sarasota to see friends.

"We didn't want to rent a car, so we flew to Tampa and now to Sarasota," Gail Toscano said. "The plane's as small as they get, but so be it."

Lori Duzoglou of Miami is an interior designer with a lot of clients in Sarasota.

"If I drove from Miami to Sarasota, it would take me three days to do what I can do now in one. And given the price of gas, this is actually cheaper," Duzoglou said.

"Besides, these little guys are always on time or early, and it's a fun experience."

Then there are those with odd reasons to fly.

"I had one passenger last week who flew down with me and turned around and flew right back," Sampson said. "He needed the miles for his frequent flyer program."

At $174 per round trip, it probably isn't the most economical way to pile up miles.

The route is flown by Cape Air, a feeder airline based in Massachusetts that operates only in New England, the Caribbean and Florida. Besides the Tampa-Sarasota route, it flies Tampa to Fort Myers and Fort Myers to Key West. That's it.

To welcome Floridians, the Cessnas are painted in a Key West motif, with a portrait of a controversial former Key West mayor on one side and a pirate on the other. There's a conch shell and a sun on the tail, and the nose depicts a shark with teeth bared, reminiscent of the old World War II Curtiss P-40E Warhawks flown by the Flying Tigers.

There are enough people who want to take the flight that they usually are fully booked early and late in the week. Midweek, it's a different story. On the leg to Sarasota on Wednesday, Duzoglou and the Toscanos were the only passengers besides a St. Petersburg Times reporter and photographer.

On the leg back, Sampson told Gomez, "This would be a chartered flight just for you if these press people weren't here."

Continental spokeswoman Mary Clark said the flights primarily are for the benefit of Sarasota residents making connections through Tampa.

"The Sarasota airport is closer to home, it's cheaper to park there, and they don't want to start their trips with an hourlong drive," Clark said.

Kim Corkran, a spokeswoman for Cape Air, said the short-haul flights are a niche the airline has carved out for itself.

"Our goal is to fly no route longer than 45 minutes," she said. "We have at least one flight shorter than Tampa to Sarasota, and that's Nantucket to Hyannis. It's only 15 minutes. They work for us."

The Tampa-Sarasota flights work so well that there are two of them a day, both round trip.

Both nonstop, of course.

[Last modified August 26, 2006, 01:30:37]


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