Popular Tampa airport busier than ever while construction moves forward

Tampa International Airport, TIA, is now undergoing the largest expansion since the opening of its modern terminal facility in 1971, and airport officials say it will make some big changes to customers’ experience at the airport.

Fans of the airport might worry when they hear that, because most people apparently already like the airport just fine.

It rated second in the nation in customer satisfaction to the Indianapolis airport in two recent studies, one by Conde-Nast Traveler magazine and one by the trade association Airports Council International. The ACI also rated Tampa the fifth-best in the world in its size class, 15-25 million passengers a year.

But right now, people driving to the airport are navigating a maze of roadwork zones and seeing huge construction sites as they go to and from the airport they already think is pretty good. Some might be saying to themselves, “If it ain’t broke …”

So what needs to be fixed?

For one thing, although the airsides where people actually board airplanes are expected to be adequate for several years to come, the airport’s passenger volume is exceeding the capacity of the main terminal, says airport Director Joe Lopano.

There’s congestion in the “transfer areas,” where departing passengers go from their cars into the terminal and ticket counters, and arriving passengers go from the airside shuttles to the baggage claim and ground transportation areas.

Maneuvering roller bags around and through crowds in ticketing lines and baggage pickup areas can be a struggle at peak travel times, and cars and people are piling up in the passenger pickup and drop-off roads and sidewalks.

That includes the rental car facilities, which currently are directly across the road from baggage claim in the passenger pickup area. That means hundreds of people getting off planes, then trying to cross the busy road where people are driving through to pick up arriving passengers.

Building for the future

What about the future, when TIA’s passenger volume is expected to double to 34 million per year by 2033?

The answer is the $972 million expansion, one of the largest public works projects in Tampa history and certainly the largest at the airport since the modern terminal opened in 1971, at a cost of $85 million in 1971 dollars. 

The expansion will include:
  • 55,000 square feet added to the main terminal, including 23,000 square feet of outdoor terraces.
  • A new 2.6 million-square-foot car rental facility that will drastically increase the number of customers rental car companies can handle.
  • A 1.4-mile automated people mover, similar to the airport’s current airside shuttles, with trains running every 2-3 minutes between the terminal, the new rental car facility and economy parking. 
  • A new set of concessionaires, including restaurants and retailing, chosen in part to offer an authentic Tampa experience rather than the same concessions found in every other airport in the world. The new restaurants, for example, will include branches of the downtown Irish pub Four Green Fields, the popular French restaurant Mise En Place and Ybor City’s iconic Columbia Restaurant.

The project is scheduled for completion in late 2017, but it’s actually the first phase of a three-phase plan that will add a new international airside and more. Those second two phases kick off in 2018 and run through 2025, airport director Joe Lopano told a meeting of the Westshore Alliance business group recently.

“We’re seeing a significant growth rate, 6 to 8 (annual) percent growth in passengers, and the airport was already at capacity before I got here” in 2011, Lopano says later in an interview. 

When the project is complete, he says, “The main terminal will be much more wide open, a lot more wide-open spaces. All new food beverage and retail concessionaires will be there.

“The new rental car facility will be state-of-the-art modern. You’ll be able to get your car immediately rather than having to wait because it will be so efficient down there. You’ll be closer to the highway” when you leave.

“It’s going to be world-class. You’re going to see the most efficient airport in the country,” he says. “You’re going to see America’s favorite airport continue to be America’s favorite.”

Free parking for first hour

One thing won’t change – TIA’s hugely popular policy of allowing the first hour of parking free in the terminal parking deck. That allows people to park long enough to meet and pick up an incoming traveler without having to pay for parking or circle the airport in their cars while waiting.

Along with the other new stuff at the airport there will also be some new artwork displayed in its open areas.

The airport authority has set aside $3.5 million of the project’s cost for permanently displayed, large public artworks in 12 locations, along with three small gallery spaces for rotating exhibits of emerging artists.

TIA was born in 1928 as Drew Field Municipal Airport on 160 acres of pine woods and “cow pasture engirdled by swampy land,” then nearly six miles from Tampa, according to the TIA history website. A newspaper published a map so people could find it for the grand opening.

That site is part of TIA’s current 3,300-acre location.

Airport officials say the new people mover and rental car facility will increase the speed and efficiency with which passengers can move into and out of the airport.

The people mover will mean 2.7 million fewer vehicle trips a year on the airport’s access roads, mostly by eliminating the shuttle buses from economy parking and the arriving and departing rental cars. That will cut traffic in the passenger loading and unloading zones.

It’s expected rental car drivers will be able to get to their cars more quickly; they’ll also be closer to major highways when they drive out of the facility, without having to navigate the airport access roads. 

A Hertz spokeswoman says the company and its Dollar and Thrifty brands have outgrown the capacity of their current space and will be able to consolidate their brands in one location and improve customer service in the new facility.

It will “give travelers greater access to and from airport terminals and ease the congestion inside and outside the terminal while providing a one-stop-shop for rental car customers,” says Beth Davis.

New rental car option

The expansion also means there will be room for new rental car companies, including German-based Sixt.

New to the U.S., the company boasts that it provides premium cars, including German makes, at economical prices.

Craig Olson, North American vice president for Sixt, says TIA’s additional space “is great for both customer choice and satisfaction.”

Colin Breen, co-owner of Four Green Fields, says he expects the airport location to be “a great billboard” for his pub, and by extension, for Tampa.

He says the airport restaurant will have the same look and atmosphere, including the bar’s famous thatched roof. “It will be as much of a duplication as possible.”

The menu will be smaller because of limited storage space, but will be drawn from the  existing menu with the same recipes and quality control, he says.

Travelers always complain about overpriced food in airports, but Breen says by airport policy, prices in the branch restaurants can’t be more than 10 percent above those in the home facility.

Some images of what the completed project will look like are on the airport’s website including construction photos, facts and figures, plans and architect’s renderings.
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Read more articles by William March.