In 2011, Brandon Ahlgren and his wife, frequent travelers to Europe, had the kind of frustrating experience that used to be too common for people who try to get there from Tampa.
On their way back, landing in Atlanta after a nine-hour flight from Spain, they sat in their airplane on the tarmac for an hour waiting for a gate to clear so they could disembark.
When they finally got off the plane, they raced through the huge Atlanta airport trying to make their connecting flight to Tampa – and arrived panting at the gate just in time to see their ride home backing away for takeoff.
Stories like that one could be in the past, or at least more rare, for Europe-bound travelers from Tampa starting Sept. 25 -- the first day of the new, five-day-a-week, nonstop Lufthansa
service from Tampa International Airport
(TPA) to Frankfurt.
The service, the airport’s third nonstop European flight, will open the way to many more European cities from Tampa. It puts travelers in a more centralized location for connections elsewhere in Europe than the airport’s two existing nonstop European destinations, London and Zurich.
For many European destinations, the Lufthansa flight will eliminate what several travelers say is the worst part of the trip – making a connection from Tampa in another city, often non-user-friendly airports in Newark or Atlanta, before or after crossing the Atlantic.
Ahlgren and his wife will be on that first Lufthansa flight out of TIA. They’ll spend four nights in Frankfurt, three in Berlin, and then on to Prague, where she has a business conference.
“It really opens up opportunities to get to Europe so much quicker,” he says. “The great thing is that in Frankfurt, you’re pretty centered to anywhere in Europe.”
As an event rental business owner, he adds, “This opens a door to bring more business to Tampa and even Clearwater, where we’re always trying to get larger events. To be in Tampa in 8½ hours from Germany is amazing.”
For the Tampa Bay area, which faces intense competition from Miami and Orlando for international flights, the Luthansa flight is “a huge win” and “a testament to the strength of our international market,” says TIA chief Joe Lopano.
Big plans for future
Lufthansa is part of the airport’s ongoing campaign to expand air service to and from Tampa, both domestic and international.
It recently won expanded service to Seattle, a daily flight on Alaska Airlines
that started June 14. A top priority now is better service on what TIA spokeswoman Emily Nipps says is one of the most under-served routes in the nation compared to the demand for travel, Tampa to San Francisco.
Bringing in new air service can be difficult because of airline logistics and economics, Nipps says.
Airports decide where to place flights based on availability of expensive airplanes, other costs including personnel and the expected profitability of the route.
International flights are often a costly investment for an airline. To lure them, airports or cities sometimes provide financial incentives, but those can be controversial -- they involve using public money to subsidize a private business. Before 2011, TIA didn’t offer incentives.
But Lopano, who arrived at the airport that year, advocates incentives, and the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority
board voted to begin offering them after he arrived.
To bag Lufthansa, TIA offered $1.8 million over two years in waived landing fees and cash; the cash is to be used for marketing the flights in Germany and the U.S. The Visit St. Pete/Clearwater
and Visit Tampa Bay
tourism promotional agencies kicked in another $600,000 for marketing over two years.
Nipps says the airport expects to recoup the money in future landing fees from the airline, which will be $623,103 a year after the incentives expire, and in economic expansion in the area.
TIA used similar financial incentives to induce Edelweiss Air
to offer a nonstop flight to Zurich in 2012, and Copa Airlines
to begin flights to Panama, with connections throughout Latin America, in 2013.
The Edelweiss investment is considered a success because the airline has now expanded the service after expiration of the incentives; the Copa incentives are still in effect.
The Tampa Bay area has at least 60 businesses with direct ties to Germany, including corporate parents or subsidiaries, says Kevin Wiatrowski of Visit Tampa Bay.
The Lufthansa flight also provides quicker access to all the places Lufthansa serves besides Europe, he says, including India, Africa and the Middle East. “It opens the whole world more directly.”
For those interested simply in Germany, and particularly for German-American families, the connection is beneficial because Frankfurt “is a public transportation hub for all of Germany,” says Nicol Winkler, co-founder and head of the annual Oktoberfest Tampa event
Experiencing German culture, music, food in Tampa
While waiting for the flight to start, the airline is promoting it with German themed music, dancing and food in a model German village in the main terminal.
On one recent day, the Old Castle German Restaurant
in Sun City Center was at the airport offering up spaetzle, red cabbage and pork roast, and the Alex Meixner
played the accordion backed by his band for dancers.
The venue is also hosting the Orlando-based Mein Heimatland Musikanten
polka group and the Bavarian-themed Gulf Coast Enzianer Schuhplattler Dance Group
Among those listening and dancing was Helmut Drews
, 84, who entertains crowds with a button-box accordion. Originally from Kiel, an industrial region in northern Germany, he’s part of the German-American Friendship Club
in Pinellas Park.
The flight means a lot to him, he says, because Frankfurt is near his remaining family in Germany in Wiesbaden.
Rosemarie and Gary Williams of Tarpon Springs say they go to Germany every couple of years to visit her family – she’s from Nierstein am Rhine, the German wine country, and they married in 1969 while he was stationed in Germany in the Army. She likes to take walks along the Rhine River where she grew up and go on family grape-picking outings.
The flight will change their trip from a 12-14 hour ordeal to maybe nine hours.
“It’s a big deal,” he says. “There are a lot easier things than having to stop in New York or Atlanta.”