TIA's fans take off on rating

Despite poll, fliers, officials defend airport.

Published May 24, 2007

Clint Snedeker is impressed to see airport workers mopping the floors of Tampa International at 11 p.m. Art Pushkin likes the short walk, instead of a long bus ride, to pick up his rental car.

The two frequent fliers had the same reaction to a national survey that gave Tampa International a subpar rating, behind congested airports in New York, Boston and Washington, D.C.

"I'm very surprised; it's one of my favorite airports," said Pushkin, regional sales manager for a digital imaging company, of Dix Hills, N.Y. "Most of those other airports I'd rate worse."

The customer satisfaction survey released Tuesday by J.D. Power and Associates ranked Tampa International 14th out of 25 medium-size U.S. airports. Its score of 683 points out of a possible 1,000 placed Tampa International below average for mid-size airports.

Travel magazines and customer polls rated the airport among the nation's best since it opened Easter weekend of 1971. Tampa International was the top-ranked domestic airport in the 2000 J.D. Power survey and no lower than sixth in the medium-size category since 2003.

Like airport officials, frequent airport users suspected some quirk in the survey caused Tampa International's number to plummet.

"It has a lot to do with how you ask the question," said Wallace Hawkes of Tampa, who goes through the airport twice a week traveling for engineering giant URS or on trips to poker tournaments.

That's not to say Tampa International wins universal praise. As passenger traffic grew in recent years, Bill Rich of Valrico found it harder to get a convenient space in long-term parking,

Retrieving a checked bag took as long as 40 minutes. But he said that was more the fault of Delta Air Lines, which like other big carriers slashed employees during financial restructuring.

"It seemed to get progressively worse," said Rich, who flew every week as a pharmaceutical company executive before retiring in February. "I don't really miss it."

Airport officials on Wednesday provided recent customer satisfaction surveys by two other companies, Plog Research and Canmark Technologies.

Both rated Tampa International above the average for similar-size airports in each of at least 10 categories, including parking, cleanliness, easy-to-follow signs and security.

J.D. Power said the airport slipped from its 2006 rating in seven of eight areas, such as checked baggage service, airport access and terminal facilities.

Tampa International logged in 39 customer comments by phone or e-mail through March and April. Complaints slightly outnumbered compliments.

The biggest gripe: traffic officers hassling drivers dropping off or picking up passengers. But complaints ran the spectrum, from a customer unhappy with Wi-Fi reception at a restaurant to a traveler's wife who expected public showers for him to clean up after a 36-hour trip from Singapore.

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

Here is a sampling of comment reports Tampa International Airport received from travelers. For more travelers' comments, turn to 2D.

- "Received 2 calls from (a passenger) regarding how long he had been waiting in the public garage due to traffic. I explained to him about the outbound parkway being closed for (construction) ... it took him 50 minutes to move from valet parking to the exit toll plaza."

- "I love you guys at TPA. OYE! Great! The cell phone parking lot is fabulous, the free Internet is fabulous and the soft, soothing paging voice with that slightly upward intonation at the end of the sentence is, well, just comforting."

Additional comment reports TIA received from travelers:

- "Being short for time, (a passenger) requested to be screened in the special needs lane ... according to (him), the supervisor was rude, used foul language and threatened to send him to the end of the line. When (he) addressed the TSA inspector concerning not having more lanes open, the response 'go tell Washington' was not appreciated."

- "(A woman) called in asking if we had a place for her husband to shower, stating that (he) is traveling from Singapore to Korea to Atlanta and Tampa ... to meet colleagues ... I told her about the Marriott hotel and she said they charge over $300 a night and they didn't need a room, they need a shower."