Joe Lopano prepares to leave his legacy at TPA for his next great journey

It’s 8 a.m. on a Friday, at Tampa International Airport. It’s sunny and the weather is slowly warming up, hour by hour. It started out about 40 degrees, this February morning, and will hit almost 80 degrees later in the day. It’s one of those perfect Tampa Bay days that would have made Joe Lopano say, “This is why we live here…” If you could nail him down, that is, long enough to have a conversation. 

Lopano, the chief executive officer of Tampa International Airport, is a lot like the planes that are flying overhead, constantly coming and going. The idle moments for Lopano, as in the control tower at TPA, are temporary and fleeting. There is always somewhere else to go, something that must be done, a destination that must be reached. 

This morning is just another day at the office for the CEO of TPA, or “America’s Favorite Airport.” But, as had been announced days prior, it would not be his day-to-day routine much longer. 

On February 1, at a Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board meeting, Lopano announced his retirement after 13 years of service as the chief officer in charge at TPA. 

His contract was set to expire in 2025, so he announced his retirement in advance, allowing the board, and his team, to begin making arrangements and the arduous task of attempting to replace the man who, most believe, is irreplaceable. To know “Joe,” as many affectionately refer to him, is to know that finding someone to fill his shoes will be no easy task. 

Under his leadership, the airport has added an estimated 14 international flights, multiplying the “international” in its name. It has undergone major, multi-billion-dollar expansions, some parts still ongoing, such as the construction of Airside D, which is expected to open in 2028.

It has added dining lineups that truly reflect the local culinary delights of Tampa Bay. Even if you’re just passing through, you can enjoy the famous 1905 Salad from the Columbia Cafe or a pint of local brew from Cigar City Brewing. 

It’s been named the best airport in the United States by nearly every recognizable outlet and every measurable aspect. It’s added a dynamic, state-of-the-art office building that’s generating profits and the airport has even attracted the honor of having “the best restroom in America.” 

All of these accolades, and accomplishments, and we have a cab driver from New York City to thank for it. His impact will, quite literally, transcend generations. 

A GREAT PLACE TO RETIRE

Lopano started as TPA’s CEO in January 2011. He previously had been with the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport for 14 years, as executive vice president of marketing and terminal management. 

What enticed him to take the job at TPA and move from Texas to Florida 13 years ago? Was it the airport itself, the title of CEO or the Tampa Bay region, which was certainly just as beautiful but not nearly as evolved as it is in the present day? 

“I had been to Tampa many times prior. And when I would go for my morning walks, I remembered thinking, ‘This is probably a great place to retire,’” Lopano says with a laugh. 

In short, Lopano admits, it was all of the above. The beauty of the area, the potential of TPA, as an airport, and yes, nabbing that CEO title, all played a factor in his decision to say “yes” to TPA. 

“I had been to this airport many times and I just loved it,” Lopano says. The genius of the original architecture is hard to ignore. With the help of his wife Janet, the EVP started working on his resume for the CEO position and his big move to Tampa. 

“The other competing four candidates were already CEOs of airports. The board kept asking me, ‘We have CEOs out there who want this job; why would we hire you?’” Lopano says. 

His answer was, “Because no one is born a CEO. Someone has to say, ‘I’m going to make you a CEO and you’re going to do this’… and that’s why I’m here.” 

We all now know the ending to this story. Spoiler alert: the EVP got the job. 

Lopano had a track record of success in expanding international flight service. Yes, there was confidence, absolutely, but he also had a unique vision of what the scope of the market was. It wasn’t just Tampa, it was the region, and he had an awareness that the airport, as is, would need to accommodate a lot more people when he was done with his plan. 

“Why would you limit yourself to Tampa when you can reach the whole of central Florida and the west coast of Tampa Bay within an hour? Sure enough, my vice president of marketing at the time, Chris Minner, convinced Edelweiss, who was flying to Orlando, to switch from Orlando to Tampa. That was the first. That’s when people in this community started to say, maybe he’s got something there,” Lopano says. 

Others would follow. 

Under Lopano’s leadership, TPA and the Aviation Authority have attracted international routes such as Edelweiss Air to Zurich, Copa Airlines to Panama City, Panama; Lufthansa (now Discover) to Frankfurt and Virgin Atlantic to London Heathrow. 

“That’s when the naysayers started to stay quiet. It always takes a few wins in order to get the credibility you need. And from that point on, we were just doing what we did at DFW. It’s the same playbook. We, sort of, wrote it for the industry,” Lopano says. 

Over the years, Lopano says he has done exactly what he wanted to do. 

“I’ve done everything I said I would do here and couldn’t be more proud of my team and what they’ve accomplished,” Lopano says. “I’m leaving the airport better than I found it and that’s what I set out to do.” 

Since announcing his intent to retire, Lopano says it feels like a weight has been lifted off his back, due to keeping his big announcement under wraps, for some time. 

“Now that everybody knows, everyone has been so gracious and so kind,” he says. 

When asked if he could write his own headline as he prepares to exit as CEO of TPA, what would it be? 

“Regular guy. Did a good job. Moving on,” Lopano says with a slight smile, and a twinkle in his eye. 

It might be hard to believe if you’ve never heard it, but Lopano’s story did, in fact, start out fairly “regular.” 

SLEEPY HOLLOW

Lopano grew up in Tarrytown, a village in the town of Greenburgh, in Westchester County, in New York. 

“We lived a very modest life. Ten people in a three-bedroom house, so you can do the math,” Lopano says, laughing. 

As a child he was always outside, playing, building forts and rolling around in the dirt, probably accompanied by one or more of his seven siblings (he was no. 6). He was an altar boy and a boy scout, with admittedly limited success. 

“Both of those [things] didn’t work out so well,” Lopano says with a gleam in his eyes. “I’m not big on clubs and rules, but I tried.” 

At 12 years old, he started to caddy at the Sleepy Hollow Country Club. 

Yes, that Sleepy Hollow, the town that legends are told of, lies just north of Tarrytown along the Hudson River. Lopano explains, “In the legend of Sleepy Hollow, where the Headless Horseman rode with a pumpkin and no head over a bridge… that bridge is in the cemetery in my town.”

Lopano’s dad was the mayor of Sleepy Hollow, but also an accountant for Pan American Airways. 

When it came time to go to college, Lopano had no knowledge on how to make that happen or whether he even wanted to. Instead, he became a cab driver in New York City. 

“It was a pretty sweet life – at least I thought so,” Lopano says, with a contented sigh. “And then I met this woman named Janet and she changed my life.” 

Janet is Lopano’s wife of 45 years. “She told me, ‘You’re too smart to just drive a cab. You need to go to college,” he adds. 

All the hurdles and unknowns that Lopano could list, Janet had solutions for. He ended up studying finance and accounting at Pace University – Lubin School of Business, in New York. 

When he graduated college, he got an entry-level job at Pan Am – yes, Dad helped him. He started as a Teamster in the mail room. Lopano recalls walking in, very confident on his first day, wearing his three-piece suit with a newspaper tucked under his arm…to a room full of laughter. 

It was humbling, but also ignited a new ambition for Lopano. It was his, “oh yeah, watch me” moment. He says he’s the epitome of someone who started at the bottom rung of the ladder and says, yeah, that was me. I literally started my career in the mailroom of Pan Am. Look at me now.  

“Six months later I was promoted into management, as an auditor, and the mailroom guys had a party for me,” he recalls with a chuckle. “Like, no one ever gets out of the mailroom. That was a part of my Joe Lopano dream story. The American Dream.” 

As an auditor for Pam Am, Lopono started flying all over the world at 23 years old. He joined the auditing department in December and by January 3, he was in Tokyo, Japan. The year was 1978. 

NEW HEIGHTS

Lopano’s journey to be CEO of TPA began during his time at Pan Am. 

“The first time I had caviar was on a Pan Am airplane. I was sitting next to this banker for Chase Manhattan, who was in First Class going to Tokyo, just like me. Here it is, I’m sitting next to a vice president of a bank. But that’s where they told me to sit!” Lopano recalls this story as if it were yesterday, as it seems to still excite him that this is when things began to change for him. 

“I’m just this green newbie and the flight attendants were taking orders and the guy I was sitting next to orders caviar, toast and onions, maybe some egg and some capers. I’m looking at it and I don’t even know what it is. The flight attendant asks me, ‘What would you like, sir?’” Lopano laughs. “I said, ‘I’ll take what he’s having.’ That was the first time I ever had caviar.” 

While he may appreciate the finer things, like caviar, Lopano is more down to earth than one might think, when they think of the “CEO of Tampa International Airport.” 

While scheduling catering for this interview, the caterer, Mise en Place, who does all of the cover story interview catering for Tampa Bay Business and Wealth, exclaimed, “Oh, I have catered for Joe many times. He appreciates a beautiful display, but also would be happy with Krispy Kreme donuts.” The Café by Mise en Place is another local dining option at TPA. 

It’s those layers of personality that, no doubt, contribute to Lopano’s range of experience. He knows what a savvy, sophisticated businessperson will appreciate but he also understands what a large family travelling together might need. When he walks through the airport, which he admits he even visits “just to drive through,” on his days off, he acknowledges both of those expectations and enables his team to deliver. He works with his board to be sure all traveler needs are met. His vision, along with support from those around him, is what has led TPA to new heights today. 

The Tampa Bay area will remain a home to the Lopanos. After all, he did fall in love with it, long before he decided to run the airport that helped put the region on the competitive business map. 

“We visited about three years before they made me the [TPA] offer, for a soccer tournament [at the University of South Florida] with my son,” Lopano recalls. “We stayed downtown at the Embassy Suites, and I got up every morning and did my walk. I walked along Harbour Island and thought, this place is gorgeous. No one ever told me that it was this beautiful. I made a note to myself that it would probably be a good place to retire.”

And retire here he did.


A REASON TO WANDER

Lopano explains that, at one point, he was deciding whether to follow a passion for photography or to enter the business world. In his younger years, he had pictures published in the New York Daily News and the New York Post

A wise confidant of Lopano’s told him this: “Try your hand in business. If you hate it, then be a photographer. You can always do photography as a hobby and, if you’re good at business, you’ll be able to.” 

“I got my first camera when I was 10 years old. I still have my Nikon cameras, all of them,” Lopano says. 

“That’s one of the things I’ll do after I retire. I might pick a place in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and disappear for a week and take pictures.” 

He says he loves photography because it allows him to wander without purpose. 

“You discover something and you photograph it, but there’s no real agenda. It just sort of comes to you. It happens,” he says. 

It should surprise no one that Joe Lopano, also experiences his own version of wanderlust. 

WHAT WAS A TIME JOE FAILED? 

“It was at Continental Airlines. I was involved in a startup, as a part of the airlines, and it really failed. That was how I exited the premises. I suppose a lot of your readers will be able to relate to that,” Lopano shares with TBBW. “It was probably the best thing to ever happen to me.”

“I’ve learned a lot of lessons, really painful ones, which stick with you forever,” he adds. “But that’s what got me here so, in a way, God does things for a reason.” 

POINT OF PRIDE

Lopano says, that despite all the awards and accomplishments, he is most grateful for his family. 

“I was raised in an Italian household and family was everything. It was the only thing. We had no money. We didn’t want money. We had everything we needed,” Lopano says. “That’s something you can’t quantify. You can look at salaries, you can look at stock bonuses and all the rest of that, but how do you say what a family is worth? It’s in your heart. That’s the only way you can figure it out. So that really is my point of pride.” 

IN ALL HIS FREE TIME

Lopano has felt the sense of community that wraps its arms around Tampa Bay. 

He serves on the boards of the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council and is the 2024 chair, as well as the board of the Hillsborough County Transportation Planning Organization. He’s a member of the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society and a past Honorary Commander at MacDill Air Force Base. 

“The big surprise for me was that I could really change not just the airport, but I could change the community. I didn’t realize that you could do that,” Lopano says. “This community didn’t believe in itself. I thought, just watch, this is going to happen. We’re going to do this. And when we started doing it, to coin a Bob Buckhorn saying, ‘We got swagger.’ And sure enough, we went from a town of ‘no, we can’t’ to a town of ‘watch this.’” 

Photos by Evan Smith

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