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$7-million airport expansion unveiled

The public can taxi in for a close-up view of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport's expanded facility during an open house today.

By EDIE GROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 3, 2000


photo
[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
Passengers arriving from Chicago collect their luggage in the new baggage claim area at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport on Friday.
LARGO -- The sun shines through the skylights onto the face of Lu Kappeler, who, after three weeks in rainy Chicago, could use a little sunshine.

"Oh, it's nice," the New Port Richey woman said, tilting her gaze toward the 30-foot ceilings in the new wing of the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

When Kappeler flew out of the airport May 10, workers were still putting the finishing touches on the $7-million expansion, the largest in the facility's 40-plus-year history.

On Friday, fresh off her flight from Midway Airport in Chicago, Kappeler checked out the new 25,000-square-foot baggage-claim area. The etched glass featuring ocean scenes. The tile yet to be scuffed by heavy suitcases. The blue-and-gray carpet that smells like the inside of a new Cadillac.

But she and friend Barbara Riecss were most impressed by the view of the sky.

"I like the high ceilings and the sunlight," Riecss said.

The new addition, eight times bigger than the old baggage-claim area, officially opened to visitor traffic Thursday. The curious can get a closer look at it during an open house from noon to 4 p.m. today.

About $6-million of the overall cost came from a grant from the federal Airport Improvement Program, which is supported by airline ticket taxes paid by passengers. The Florida Department of Transportation provided another $700,000 from an aviation fuel tax fund and the rest of the project was paid for by user fees generated at the airport. The extra space will make it easier to handle large volumes of traffic and attract more airlines, said airport director James G. Howes.

The old baggage-claim area could not handle more than two flights at once. The new one can handle up to eight during the busiest seasons, Howes said.

The airport averages about 26 flights a day, mostly to and from Chicago, Toronto, Indianapolis and Minneapolis. But at least three of the airlines that fly out of there -- ATA, Southeast and Sun Country -- are considering expanding their schedules in the coming year, he said.

Air Transat, Royal Airlines, Canada 3000 and Casino Airlink also operate out of St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

The airport has handled 800,000 to 1-million passengers a year during the past five years. Numbers dipped in 1997 and 1999 after ATA quit using the airport as a Florida hub and when Sun Jet, which offered daily non-stop trips to New York, declared bankruptcy.

Airport officials project that the facility will handle 1.5-million passengers each year by 2005.

The new baggage-claim area was built to accommodate a second floor with four new gates and jetways, which would allow passengers to board from inside the building instead of from the tarmac. That project would cost about $20-million, said Howes, who would like to start designing it during the next budget year.

Howes also said he would like to expand the 8,500-foot runway to 10,000 feet so the airport could accommodate charter flights to and from Europe. Airplanes flying nonstop overseas need a longer runway to take off because they are carrying more fuel, Howes said.

People traveling through the airport last week said they were pleased with the improvements.

"It's nice," said Chicago resident Mary Bochenek, whose family uses the airport on its annual visits to the area. "I think this airport's great overall anyhow. It's small. It's convenient. You're in and out."

Mrs. Bochenek's husband, Zeke, works for Metraflex, a Chicago company that provided components of the new wing's heating and cooling system.

"This is a wonderful extension. Of course, we're happy to contribute," said Zeke Bochenek, who last visited the airport during construction. "It's fantastic."

Even first-time visitors noticed the changes.

"It smells like new carpet," said Indianapolis resident Will Taber. "It is spacious, and it's easy to get around. I like that."

The airport's new look is a far cry from the bus depot-looking building that Howes encountered when he arrived 20 years ago.

"It's been quite an exciting ride for me to see the changes," Howes said. "The appearance is dramatically different. There's no mistaking it. This is a brand-new airport."

Check it out

The St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport just wrapped up a $7-million terminal expansion. The airport will have an open house today from noon to 4 p.m. The event includes vintage and modern military aircraft displays, Coast Guard search-and-rescue demonstrations, parachute jumpers and aerial performances by P-51 Mustang, F-104 Starfighter, A-10 Thunderbolt II and F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft. Plane rides will be available for children for $10. Kids also can get their faces painted, win prizes and take a toy rocket building class from Great Explorations. For information, call 535-7600.

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