Tampa International Airport will finally be offering direct flights to Seattle

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  • Joe Lopano (at right) went grunge rock with his flannel shirt tied around his waist

Although Tampa International Airlines CEO Joe Lopano was hired in 2010 with a mandate to bring more direct international flights to Tampa, he's always emphasized that his team was also focused on doing the same for key domestic routes.

Today they delivered a major one: the announcement that direct flights to Seattle via Alaska Airlines will begin this June.

“The West Coast of the United States has been a hole in our route map,” said Lopano. “We have now closed that. And for us to attract the kind of high-tech companies we want to attract, we have to be competitive. We have to have the service to bring them here. So our strategy is working."

As is becoming a trend at TIA with such announcements, most of the officials who spoke at the press conference were clad in an appropriate outfits to mark the occasion. While Lopano and Mayor Bob Buckhorn donned Panama hats with the announcement last summer of direct flights to Panama, today flannel and ski caps were the sartorial choice. Seattle-associated musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Pearl Jam and Nirvana were played on the sound system before and after the official ceremony, and cafe con leche was served up in Starbucks cups.

TIA officials say more than 160 passengers a day currently fly from Tampa to Seattle. So now, beginning on June 20, travelers to the home of Amazon, Microsoft and the NFL champion Seahawks will no longer have to connect through another airport.

As has been the case in getting direct flights to Switzerland, Cuba and Panama, the winning strategy involved bringing in members of the business and tourist community to sell those markets: people like D.T. Minich, executive director of Visit St. Petersburg Clearwater, Santiago Corrada, CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, and Bob Rorhlack and Chris Steinocher, the respective chairs of the Chambers of Commerce in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

  • This is a mock-up of a potential ad that could run in Seattle later this year

Minich and his crew created a marketing strategy to introduce the beaches of Tampa Bay. He said that the Pinellas beaches can compete with Hawaii and Mexico, the better-known tourist destinations for Seattleites looking to get out of the rain. And with an "edgy" clientele in Seattle, he says that traditional media won't play, which is why he's contemplating running ads (like those shown here) around trolleys and segways, as well as an in-depth web-based campaign.

"They said, 'People in Seattle don't know anything about the Gulf Coast beaches, how are you going to educate them?'" That's what Alaska Airline officials asked D. T. Minich last year, which led to new ideas about what could be done to sell the flights.

Justin Meyer, the airport’s director of air service development, extolled the virtues of flying on Alaska Airlines, saying that by the end of this year the airline will be installing new seats with WiFi and in-seat laptop power. "That's the only airline in the U.S. that has that service."

Lopano and his team are by no means done pursuing direct flights. Domestically, the biggest prize out there remains San Francisco, while Mexico City and cities in Central and South America are also being worked on.

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