Up, up and not away

Tampa Bay works against itself in the fight for international flights.

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POLITICAL WHORE

The advertisement in a recent issue of the Tampa Bay Business Journal for Lufthansa Airlines' new nonstop flight from Orlando to Frankfurt didn't seem controversial on its face: just a little boy looking out an air terminal window at the German carrier's well-known yellow-and-blue flying crane logo.

That young lad, however, has no idea of how bad that three-quarter-page advertisement looked to a handful of businesspeople who have made a quiet crusade out of attracting more overseas flights for an airport closer to home: Tampa International.

The Orlando airport ad was made possible, in part, through the financial support of Pinellas County's tax-supported tourism agency, Visit St. Petersburg-Clearwater. That same agency is represented on an airport advisory committee with those same upset Tampa Bay businesspeople. The committee's top priority: Procure a nonstop flight to Frankfurt for Tampa International Airport.

Tampa's airport has long struggled to achieve internationality.

"I get all lathered up about it because I feel like we should have something more," said Bill Krusen, whose been involved in the aviation business since he was in college and was chairman of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority in the mid-1960s. "Then I think, who's going to fill up your [overseas-bound] airplane? Three times a week? It won't happen."

Tampa International currently has just five nonstops to foreign destinations, the most prominent being London. A few years back it had 10.

What's especially sad about how far behind Tampa International has fallen is that commercial aviation was born in Tampa Bay. Tony Jannus famously took care of that with his Benoist Flying Boat hop from St. Pete to Tampa. And 100 years ago, Tampa was a hub of commerce, with its Latin American connections, cigar manufacturing and excellent water access. After World War II, in a model of joint cooperation, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties worked to turn an old military airfield into the modern and lauded Tampa International Airport.

Somewhere over the century, however, Tampa Bay lost its edge as a destination. Orlando got Disney World. Tampa's close ties with Cuba were rendered moot nearly 50 years ago after Castro took over. Even Tampa's Latin population was eclipsed by Miami's, aided by the Mariel boatlift.

Today, if you are traveling from Latin America to the United States, you are likely to go to one of two places first: Miami or New York. Not Tampa Bay. Fort Lauderdale earlier this year got several new flights to Colombia, courtesy of JetBlue and Spirit. TIA got bupkis.

In 2005, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio formed a committee to land more international trade. Two years later, other cities' airports are still eating our boxed travel lunches.

"We're all frustrated, but we have to face realities," said Louis Miller, the Aviation Authority's executive director. "I was disappointed, also, when it first came out that the Pinellas convention and visitors bureau had partnered with the Orlando group, but I can certainly see it from their point of view."

The Pinellas beaches are a big draw for foreign Disney and Universal Studios visitors who add side trips to St. Pete Beach and Clearwater to their U.S. vacations. Partnering with the Orlando airport not only makes sense but is a matter of beach tourism survival, Pinellas leaders say. In addition, they say they joined with Orlando only after it was clear that Tampa was not a finalist for Lufthansa's new route.

So there are plenty of historical reasons for the overseas gap. But that doesn't make it any easier to swallow for someone like West Tampa businessman Jason Busto, who flies often to South America and is a member of the TIA international air service committee.

Busto, in frustration upon viewing the Lufthansa ad, sent out an e-mail to friends and business colleagues. "It pains me to say this, but I do not think we will have nonstop flights unless the Aviation Authority board demands a new and serious approach to winning them," Busto wrote. "To me, it seems like continuing to do the same thing and hoping for different results is a pretty unproductive waste of time."

Miller counters that the authority is "not just sitting still." It is hiring a consultant who specializes in attracting international flights, but he acknowledges that Tampa Bay doesn't have much to offer airlines in terms of financial incentives. And that's little comfort for Busto, who (only half-jokingly) suggested instead that "We should just begin advocating for a train between TIA and Orlando. ... and at least we can get public regional transit started."

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