Economic Development at Tampa and Orlando International Airports

At Tampa International and Orlando International airports, economic development enjoys continued ascent.

When it comes to economic development, a region’s airport infrastructure is often the horse before the cart. Built, in some cases, when population growth and industry expansion are still just the hopeful dreams of politicians and developers, airports emerge well in advance of a burst of regional growth and thus are often tasked with leading the charge.

That’s a narrative that resonates with Emily Nipps, spokesperson for Tampa International Airport (TIA). She’ll tell you that when Drew Field Municipal Airport became Tampa International Airport in 1971, the expansion catapulted TIA into the foreground of America’s aviation industry thanks to the addition of the world’s first tram system and moving baggage carousels.

“It’s interesting to see how visionary we were and that we’re actually going through that sort of visionary transformation again,” Nipps says.

Nipps is referring to TIA’s 2012 master plan, which was unanimously approved by the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority Board earlier this year. Along with designs for a consolidated rental car facility connected by a people mover to the main terminal, a new international terminal and a security screening checkpoint in the main terminal, the plan provides a blueprint for TIA growth—accommodating 17 million passengers in 2012 to 34.7 million passengers in 2041.

TIA’s big focus now is to bring more and more of those passengers from international destinations, not just as a way to compete with Orlando and Miami for tourism dollars, but also to use the airport as a gateway through which international travelers can easily do business with Tampa Bay and the Central Florida market.

“The big thing we did this year was bring Copa Airlines to TIA to start a nonstop flight between Tampa and Panama, four times each week. That is huge for this area,” Nipps says.

It took more than two years and a dozen visits to convince the Panamanian carrier that TIA deserved to be added to its Florida routes. “We did a lot of marketing research to understand our business traveler population. We asked the question, “Would people do more business in Latin America if we had a nonstop flight?” and our research indicated, yes. We know that there are a lot of businesses in the area that need to fly to Latin America—Major League Baseball, banks, construction companies—and we expect that list to grow,” says Nipps, who estimates that a daily service to a Latin American city would translate into an economic impact of $67 million and 600 jobs for Tampa Bay.

In June, Copa Airlines announced that it would begin its Tampa to Panama route, Tampa’s first-ever route to a major Latin American hub, beginning December 16, 2013. Days later, Edelweiss Air announced it would be expanding its nonstop flights to Zurich next year, flying twice a week from March until October.

“We view our airport as one of the top economic engines in the Tampa Bay area and it’s a role we take very seriously,” Nipps says. “This is why continuing to add direct international flights is such a high priority at TIA. We know it translates to more jobs and more tourism dollars for our region, and being able to connect our local business travelers to overseas commerce is huge.”

Ninety miles away, Orlando International Airport (OIA) executives have been cooking up their own expansion plans to the tune of $1.2 billion. A $470 million expansion to the airport’s people mover system, a 3,500-space parking garage, a $114 million upgrade to Airside 4 to improve the flow of international traffic, plus $120 million earmarked for a $2.1 billion south terminal, are just a few of the items proposed over the next five years.

“The plan is demand-driven, which means it meets anticipated levels of traffic versus a set timeframe,” says Phil Brown, executive director of the airport authority. “We don’t want to make an investment and not have it used to the fullest capacity.” Projections show that OIA, currently counting 35 million passengers annually, will hit a maximum capacity of 40 million passengers within the next few years. “Our plans call for us to make another round of improvements to grow to a 45-million capacity,” he adds.

Like TIA, Orlando is keenly focused on continuously expanding nonstop air service development, especially to and from international destinations. So far this year, OIA has experienced a 13.7 percent gain in international travel. Expediting the international arrival process to increase efficiently and decrease wait times is an obvious goal for OIA executives, who already tout that international traffic is responsible for more than $2.8 billion in annual economic impact to Central Florida.

To help with that mission, OIA announced last April that it would be the first airport in the country selected to automate the I-94 arrival/departure form used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The automation, which was phased in earlier this year, decreases the wait time by at least 20 seconds per passenger.

“At our current rate of international growth, this new electronic process will help improve customer service and enhance ‘the Orlando experience’ for our passengers,” Brown says.

Last year, OIA experienced its fourth consecutive record year of international travel with 3.7 million passengers. Since 2009, international traffic has grown by more than 27 percent.

Economic development in ascent, for certain, again.