Connection conundrum

Tampa travelers nag, but airlines are unlikely to add nonstop routes.

By Steve Huettel
Published April 4, 2007

The road to Rio goes through Miami or Atlanta.

Need to pop over to Frankfurt? Plan on spending time in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia or Charlotte, N.C. You can't get to Mexico City without a stop in Houston, Dallas or some other airline hub.

Ask international business travelers from the Tampa Bay area their biggest peeve, and you'll likely hear the same thing: not enough nonstop flights from Tampa International Airport outside the country.

Throughout the year, they can choose London, Toronto or the Cayman Islands. During winter months, add Cancun in Mexico and three more Canadian cities: Montreal, Ottawa and Halifax. Except for London, not exactly your major international business centers.

It's not a new complaint. But certainly a sore point for officials at an airport that consistently scores top marks for convenience and customer service.

Civic boosters relentlessly promote the area's strong economy. Why aren't Delta and US Airways, or Virgin Atlantic and Lufthansa stumbling over one another to start flights to Europe and Latin America?

The first answer, airport officials say, is geography.

Powered by the draw of Disney and other attractions, Orlando has 16 carriers flying nonstop to 19 international markets. Miami, an American Airlines hub, has scores of flights to Latin America and the Caribbean. Tough competition.

And airlines would rather fly customers to hubs in Atlanta or New York and fill up the plane with passengers from many cities than take a chance on running a half-empty jet from a mid-sized market.

"We're in a tough spot," says Louis Miller, executive director of Tampa International.

In the 1990s, Martinair flew from Tampa to Amsterdam, Condor tried a route to Costa Rica and US Airways tested flights to Mexico City that began and ended in Charlotte.

Those and other discontinued routes didn't speak well for our market. A study of Tampa Bay travelers to international cities - through Tampa International and other airports - found only a handful of destinations could support year-round, nonstop flights.

Critics question the study, commissioned by Tampa International. Like Primrose Demirdjian, a founder of Clearwater tech company Jagged Peak, they can't believe there aren't enough locals to fill planes to Latin America and European business hot spots.

"That may have been the story 10 or 15 years ago," she says. "But I don't think so now, with the business growth of Tampa Bay."

Others whisper that airport marketers haven't been aggressive enough selling international carriers on Tampa Bay.

Miller recently formed a committee of area economic development and tourism chiefs to review the airport's airline marketing plan before it goes to his bosses on the airport's governing board.

He expects to pick a panel of business leaders in the next couple of months to give their opinions, as well.

His draft plan calls for targeting carriers for routes to Frankfurt and Nassau, Bahamas. Miller wants airlines to turn winter-only destinations Montreal, Ottawa, Halifax and Cancun into year-round markets.

Finally, he'll push for nonstops to San Francisco, a connecting hub for Pacific Rim nations.

Good luck, Mr. Phelps.

Steve Huettel can be reached at (813) 226-3384 or huettel@sptimes.com.