Ports & Planes: Updates from the people and goods movers of Tampa Bay

The business of moving people and goods is a major economic driver in the Tampa Bay region. 

Because of the favorable central location of the airports and ports in the area, there is a lot of potential, and attractiveness, to flying in via Tampa International Airport, or expanding your shipping business to Port Tampa Bay. 

There are other players too. Lakeland Linder International Airport is hyperfocused on education and training the next generations of pilots and aviation professionals.

In Pinellas, there’s St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, the second largest airport for Allegiant Airlines routes in the United States. And Port St. Pete, located in downtown, is the only superyacht marina on Florida’s Gulf Coast, providing facilities to meet the needs of superyacht owners, captains and crew, didn’t know it was there? You’re not alone. 

These players in the “Ports and Planes” business all play a unique role in the economic benefit of the Tampa Bay region

This is TBBW’s third edition of “Infrastructure 101” — “Ports and Planes.”

Picture it. It’s the shutdown of 2020. Stay at home orders have been implemented. Chances are that wherever you were, you were staying put. 

As businesses began to adapt and reopen, life began to slowly return to normal. One of the things people really wanted to do, as soon as they could, was go somewhere else other than where they were stuck for months. 

Florida, with its COVID-19 restrictions lifting, beautiful beaches and plenty of outdoor activities to “safely distance” from each other, well, it makes a lot of sense that travel to the Sunshine State picked up fast. Tampa International Airport can confirm that it hasn’t let up since. 

“I think if I were to summarize the post-pandemic period, it would be very surprising growth for the airport,” says Joe Lopano, chief executive officer of Tampa International Airport. “I remember the spring break after the pandemic, when we started reopening, we had a very strong season and we’ve done nothing but build on that since.” 

Lopano estimates that, in 2023, on a typical day TIA has 70,000 departing and arriving passengers, per day, and as many as 90,000 passengers on peak days. 

“We’ve seen nearly 5% more passengers than the same period last year. Spring break is historically our busiest time of the year and we set new records producing seven of the 10 peak days, a record, during spring break. So we are clearly on the growth trajectory,” Lopano adds. 

Across the Bay, in Pinellas County, St. Petersburg Clearwater Airport (PIE) has some really ambitious plans they’re undertaking. 

The biggest is the $106 million terminal expansion and renovation project. 

“We need more passenger loading bridges and parking spaces for aircraft and we want to consolidate our  [Transportation Security Administration] checkpoints in to one,” says Michele Routh, public relations director for PIE. “It’s challenging because we’re a terminal building that was built, in many phases, over 65 years.” 

The numbers indicate the airport is ready for the expansion. In 2022, it had a direct and indirect economic impact of $3.4 billion and had nearly 2.5 million passengers. In comparison, the airport had about 2 million in 2021. 

“In 2022, we had our biggest passenger year in our history and eight out of the 12 months we broke individual monthly records,” Routh says. 

In addition, PIE has secured a 50-year lease agreement with MarineMax to build a manufacturing building, parking garage, travel lift and waterside dock on 9.5 acres. MarineMax is partnering with local companies Intrepid Powerboats and Wannemacher Jensen Architects for the project. Phase One of the improvements is expected to be completed by year three of MarineMax’s occupancy.

Over in Polk County, Lakeland Linder International Airport has a lot happening, as well, says Adam Lunn, assistant airport director at the airport. 

“A lot of people don’t realize the number of educational programs here, in Lakeland, specifically the space education programs with Sun n’ Fun and the Aerospace Center for Excellence,” Lunn says. “They have new educational initiatives that they are kicking off, several of which the airport is partnering with, including the Aces High program, where we’re looking to reach into underserved populations and engage them with aviation to let them know that this is a path that is tangible and that there are a lot of future opportunities in the industry.” 

No mistaking, Lakeland Linder pulls its weight in economic impact to the tune of more than $1.5 billion in 2022, according to the Florida Department of Transportation’s 2022 Florida Aviation Economic Impact Study.

“The mix of aircraft, and operations, that we have, and then, of course, with Amazon … we’re pretty diverse in what we actually do here,” says Kris Hallstrand, director at Lakeland Linder. 

While TIA, PIE and Lakeland Linder are focused on the sky, there are those focused on the sea. 

Port Tampa Bay has been adding capacity and has become Florida’s new preferred supply chain solution for container cargo, says Paul Anderson, CEO of Port Tampa Bay. 

“The recent expansion of container services with Asia and Latin America, via Port Tampa Bay, has been critical in serving Florida’s largest and fastest-growing market, the Tampa Bay/Orlando [Interstate] 4 Corridor,” Anderson says. “The Central Florida region has over 550 million square feet of distribution center space in Port Tampa Bay’s backyard. Beneficial cargo owners are seeing significant savings in their drayage [shipping to final destinations], and distribution costs , as truckers make as many as three to four round-trip deliveries per day from Port Tampa Bay to their distribution centers, which then serves the entire state. Customers also benefit from attractive northbound backhaul truck rates to extend their reach into markets throughout the Southeast and beyond.” 

It’s all about expanding services and, ultimately, economic dollars that stay in the community, Lopano says, of TIA’s focus, “Our job is really economic development at the airport.” 

And their aggressive marketing strategy has been working. Most recently, TIA announced that JetBlue launched nonstop flights from Tampa to Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.

European travel options are particularly attractive to TIA, according to Lopano, including flights to Frankfurt, Zurich and London, which are routes they currently serve. 

“When we bring 300 people over from, let’s say, London or somewhere in Europe, they are going to spend $10,000 to $30,000, in our community, and then they will get back on that plane and go home, but they’ll leave their money here,” Lopano says. “It’s a terrific investment to bring in foreign travelers who leave their money here, with us.” 

An example of this is the Virgin Atlantic aircraft that began connecting travel to London Heathrow, in 2022. An economic impact study found that new flight would produce $247 million in economic impact, in Tampa Bay, just that one, international carrier. 

Accommodating the growth that TIA has seen, with passengers and adding international flights, resulted in the plan to build a new airside terminal, for the first time in 20 years. 

The new Airside D terminal is planned to have 16 gates that can accommodate domestic or international flights. It will have its own customs facility on the upper floors. 

“You will go up an escalator to a nice, bright, airy hall and get to experience Florida as soon as you arrive,” Lopano says. 

Airside D is expected to break ground in late 2024. 

Across town, Port Tampa Bay is in the middle of a major expansion that will allow it to continue to grow its container business. 

“The port, along with container terminal operator Ports America, has accommodated growth in Florida by staying ahead of the curve thanks to our terminal build-out program. Recent expansion has increased paved storage to 67 acres with a new gate complex opening later this summer and three more post-Panamax cranes that will be operational by Fall 2023,” Anderson says. “The next phase will bring an additional 30 acres of paved storage and a berth extension from 3,200 to 4,500 linear feet. This will maintain, and attract, new business, which gets the goods consumers need from ship to store more quickly and affordably.” 

In addition, the new lease agreement with Glovis, announced in May 2023, will allow for more automobiles to be brought in through Port Tampa Bay. 

“The new agreement adds approximately 10.5 acres of vehicle storage area and 33,000 square feet of warehouse space for a vehicle-processing center on Hooker’s Point,” Anderson says. 

Glovis handles the shipment, handling, storage and processing of automobiles and expects to bring at least 70,000 vehicles, each year, through Port Tampa Bay, Anderson adds. The lease agreement is for 10 years. 

Lakeland Linder continues to put a heavy emphasis on the future of aviation. 

As Hallstrand explains, “I believe we have a social responsibility to give back to the community. We think it is necessary for the future of aviation to expose kids and young adults to aviation. It’s a part of our social responsibility, as an airport, to provide these young men and women an opportunity in life.” 

Hallstrand and Lunn are particularly excited about the 2024 Sun n’ Fun Aerospace Expo, which will mark the 50th anniversary for the event. 

“I don’t think your readers, or any of the public, will want to miss this opportunity to see the celebration of our programs because it’s going to be a blast,” Hallstrand says. 

One thing all these entities share is a dedication to the communities they serve. 

Routh is delighted to share PIE’s dedication to customer service explaining, “We run a customer service program called STAR which stands for smile, teamwork, attentive and resourceful, but it spreads through the entire workforce.” 

In fact, PIE’s TSA was named TSA of the year, in 2022. 

“I’m not kidding when I tell you, we get rave reviews about our TSA, constantly. It’s something we’re really proud of here,” she says. 

As the region grows and remains a desirable place to live and visit, the “ports and planes” players are ready. 

“I cannot think of a more exciting time to be leading a major economic driver in the state of Florida. Florida is experiencing a tremendous population boom and has become the third most-populated state in the nation,” Anderson says. “This population growth has translated into economic opportunities for the many people who live here and those who do business in our state.” 

Echoing Anderson’s sentiments from the sea, Lopano seems to be in the same mindset from the air. 

“The state of Florida is the only state that has four large, hub airports and I think that all of us, Lakeland Linder, TPA and St. Pete-Clearwater, all the airports in the state of Florida understand their mission,” Lopano says. “And their mission is not to be bigger than the guy next door. Their mission is to bring tourists and businesspeople to Florida to benefit the people who live in Florida. That’s our mission.” ♦

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