The bounce back

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Left: Joe Lopano, Tampa International

Airport’s CEO

The year 2011 marked a turning point for Tampa International. The airport had experienced a 14% decline in passenger numbers since 2007 as a result of the economic recession, Florida’s real-estate collapse, and the aftereffects of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blast and spill. Something needed to change. To try to breathe some life back into the airport, a new CEO was hired. Joe Lopano joined Tampa at the beginning of 2011 from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport (DFW), where he had worked for 14 years as executive vice president for marketing and terminal management. Lopano’s career in the aviation industry goes further back than his days at DFW; he brought more than 37 years of experience with airports and airlines with him to Tampa Bay.

Lopano’s arrival at the airport turned things around for the business. “We catered for 16.7 million passengers in 2011. Since then passenger figures have increased year-on-year. In 2015 we served 18.7 million passengers, which was up 7% from 2014,” Lopano says. “More importantly, international traffic, which is a big focus for us, grew by 19% from 2014 to 2015. In fact by the end of 2016 we are expecting to serve nearly 400,000 international passengers, which is double what we served in 2011,” he adds.

Passenger traffic has grown at the airport thanks to a number of new routes. To name a few, Lufthansa began services from Tampa to Frankfurt, Germany in 2015 and Copa Airlines introduced a service to Latin American destinations in late 2013. “We also have great services by British Airways to London and new services to Switzerland,” Lopano adds.

Lopano came to Tampa International with a clear strategy, which was to make more people and airlines aware of the Tampa Bay region and the benefits of flying there. “We created a marketing department and we hired some very talented people. They go out and meet with the airlines that we believe should be profitably serving the Tampa market. We combine our efforts with our community partners, such as the convention and visitors bureau, economic development corporation and the chamber of commerce. All of us sit down with the airline and tell them what we will do to make them successful. This has helped a lot.

“I don’t think the airline community understood that Tampa International is not just the airport for Tampa, but for the whole west coast of Florida. We have now informed the audience that we have five million people within a one-hour drive of the airport, all with very good buying incomes. Every airline that has started new services to the airport has been extremely successful,” Lopano adds.

Right: Phase one of Tampa’s

masterplan is expected to create

nearly 9,000 construction-related jobs

Addressing capacity issues

According to Lopano, in 2011 the

airport believed it had enough capacity to cope with short-term growth. “We quickly realized we didn’t,” he says.

“We had plenty of space in terms of

gate and airfield capacity, but what we didn’t think about was baggage. When two wide-body aircraft landed at the same time with 300 people on each, we just couldn’t cope with baggage claim.”

To overcome this the airport quickly embarked on a US$28m construction program that enabled it to triple baggage handling capacity. “We built on each side of the existing main international baggage carousel, so we ended up having three carousels. To improve the passenger experience, we also increased the size of our customs and border protection area and added 10 automated passport kiosks and Global Entry. We are now able to clear a 777 aircraft in around 20 minutes,” says Lopano.

Global Entry is a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the USA. Members enter the USA through automatic kiosks at select airports.

“Global Entry is an excellent clearing tool for us and helps us to move lines quickly,” Lopano explains. “We are also looking at introducing mobile passport control, whereby passengers can use an app on their cell phone to take a picture of themselves and then fill out the customs form so when they walk through to customs, the officer can just focus on identity verification and questions about their purpose of travel. We are looking to roll this technology out in the near future,” Lopano explains.

Left: A view of the main terminal people mover station from the airport’s new outdoor terraces

The masterplan

Along with focusing on immediate growth at Tampa International in 2011, Lopano, working with airport officials, also began the process of updating the masterplan for the airport’s 3,300-acre campus. The final plan was approved in 2013 and outlined three phases of expansion to accommodate 35 million passengers a year. The airport says that the masterplan enables a ‘build as demand dictates’ approach to growth, with phases based on passenger volume. Phase one of the plan has already begun and is due to be completed by the end of 2017.

“We are currently in the middle of the first phase,” says Lopano. “The US$1bn project consists of three elements. We are expanding our main terminal by 55,000ft2 (a 30% increase in size), building a 2,600,000ft2 consolidated rental car facility and adding a 1.4-mile automated people mover (APM) to connect the rental car center to the main terminal.”

The main aim of the project, according to Lopano, is to reduce congestion on the roadways and in the terminal. “Currently the rental car customer service counters are located across the street. However, because of congestion around the area and the fact that the rental cars are serviced and stored at a different location, it can take around 30 minutes for passengers to get their car. They then have to drive out through the congestion to begin their journey. The new rental car center and APM will take passengers away from the airport curbside. This project will take around 2.7 million cars a year off our roadways,” Lopano comments.

For the main terminal, the airport is expanding the facility to give it the ability to handle 20 years of growth. Expansion has also given Tampa the opportunity to refresh its F&B offerings and the airport has worked closely with its passengers to decide which brands to include.

Right: Tampa’s automated people

mover has been initially designed to carry 2,700 passengers per hour

“We hired a consultant, who undertook extensive market research with passengers to find what they want from the concessions in the airport,” Lopano explains. “The feedback was that they want a good mix of local Tampa Bay brands and national brands that they recognize and respect. As a result, more than 40% of our F&B program will be dedicated to local concepts and brands. The rest will be national brands. Two of the restaurants, PF Chang’s and Hard Rock Café, will have outdoor dining, which is not something you experience in many airport terminals around the world,” he adds.

Minimizing disruption

Tampa International has a reputation for being a relaxed and high-quality airport, so minimizing disruption during such a large improvement program was high on the airport’s list of priorities. Lopano explains more: “The most challenging part of the project is that the main terminal expansion is going on within feet of 18 million passengers. Furthermore, work on the APM and rental car center is being undertaken next to busy roadways. Our main aim is to keep everyone safe and minimize disruption. To achieve this, we undertake daily passenger surveys online. In order for passengers to get free wi-fi in the terminal, they have to answer a few questions about their airport experience. These include “Have you noticed construction?” and “Has it affected you in any way?” We have seen the awareness of construction go up considerably, but we have not seen a substantial increase in the disruption factor.”

The airport has also hired guest service representatives to help people find their way through the terminal, and on the roadways there are now traffic specialists that constantly monitor and direct traffic.

Left: A rendering of one of the new shuttle lobbies in the main terminal

Phases two and three

Once the first phase is complete the airport will embark on further expansion, which will see the facility expanded to the north to double the size of the terminal. “We will then connect the terminal to a new international airside D, which would enable all international flights to arrive there,” says Lopano. “International passengers would then board a train to the main terminal to pass through passport control and customs. This will take us about nine years to complete and will cost roughly US$1.6bn.”

The decision to build and expand one terminal rather than invest in a completely new facility was made to ensure the passenger experience remains high. “We felt that we could grow substantially within this one terminal and didn’t want passengers being shuttled back and forth from two terminals. We have plenty of space to the north of the airport, so once this three-phase masterplan is finally complete, we will be looking at a fourth phase that will expand the airport further. This would be a very simple project as it would all be greenfield.”

Unlike many airports in the USA, Tampa is in the lucky position of having a terminal design that works with current passenger requirements. “The original design of the airport back in 1971 was excellent. We were the first airport in the world to have a fully automated people mover. The design of the terminal was also arranged so that passengers didn’t have to walk more than 700ft from the curb to the ticket counter and 700ft from the ticket counter to the shuttle and shuttle to the gate. The original design team was very forward looking and I think that has served us very well. We plan to take this design approach into all future work at the airport.”

Industry recognition

Lopano has certainly made a big impact on Tampa International and this has not gone unnoticed at the airport and within the wider community. In 2015 Lopano was named Visit Tampa Bay’s Ambassador of the Year and also received the 2015 Aviation Professional of the Year Award from the Florida Department of Transportation. At a board meeting by the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority in mid-2015, Lopano scored an annual performance review of 4.71 out of 5. During the meeting, vice chairman of the board Gary Harrod praised Lopano’s work in Tampa: “Because of his leadership, our airport is far superior to all other airports in the country.”

Lopano puts his and the airport’s success down to its focus on customer service. “Passengers enjoy traveling through Tampa International and we hope that they will continue to do so,” he says. “What we have designed and are now building at Tampa is an experience that we believe will be second to none.” 

Interview by Helen Norman originally published in the March issue of Passenger Terminal World

March 9, 2016

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Kirstie joined the team in early 2017 and brings writing, communications and client experience with her. Now an assistant editor, she produces content for our magazines and websites. Away from the office, you will find her blogging on her lifestyle website or searching the internet for photos of sausage dogs.

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