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Airport CEO talks modernization, post-Covid growth

Mark Parker



Joe Lopano, CEO of Tampa International Airport, recently provided TBARTA members with an update on the airport's growth and modernization efforts. Photo provided.

Tampa International Airport’s (TPA) passenger activity is recovering faster than the national average, it now offers more destinations than before the pandemic and its leadership continues to implement technological changes.

Those are some key highlights Joe Lopano, CEO of TPA, presented to members of the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) during its Aug. 26 meeting. The Federal Aviation Authority and Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) require the 2022 master plan update, which analyzes TPA’s capacity, operational and customer needs and emerging industry trends.

A graphic showing emerging technologies the airport is embracing. Screengrab.

Lopano reiterated his commitment to embracing new technologies during the presentation – including air taxis – or electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicles.

“I remember telling this board probably six years ago that we’d be flying in passenger drones,” said Lopano. “Everyone thought I was a little cuckoo, but it’s happening.

“It’s happening right now.”

Airport officials, he said, continue to factor the emergence of eVTOLs into their master plan. The FAA is currently involved in the certification process for the innovative vehicles, which, he said, could take people from TPA to downtown St. Petersburg’s Albert Whitted Airport in six minutes.

Congested urban areas surrounded by water, said Lopano, would receive the new technology first. TPA’s Aviation Authority recently launched a committee to plan for the arrival of air taxis, which it expects to debut in Tampa as early as 2025.

“I met with a member of Congress who’s very interested in this,” he said, “This could be a game changer for us and this region.”

Lopano called the airport’s new Blue Express Curbsides a “one-of-a-kind” feature in the country. The FDOT recently named the expansion its 2022 Commercial Service Airport Project of the Year.

The express curbs, explained Lopano, allow passengers without checked luggage and a boarding pass saved to their phones to avoid ticket counters. The new feature allows travelers to directly proceed to the transfer level, where they are greeted by a recently completed 21-foot-tall flamingo sculpture.

“The only airport that can pull off a 21-foot flamingo is Tampa International,” said Lopano. “I think it reflects the fun of our region.”

Construction on the nine-story SkyCenter One building is also complete, and Lopano said the Aviation Authority occupies three floors. He added that TPA has leased 93% of the space and will buy the facility from the developer. “And it will become a profit center for us.”

The airport, said Lopano, will reach 39 million annual passengers in the next 20 years. That underscores the need for the proposed Airside D terminal, which will provide 16 gates and encompass 213,700 square feet.

After a series of pandemic-induced setbacks, he expects the airport’s board to approve the budget for the new terminal at its next meeting. Lopano told TBARTA members that a design-build contract should come in the spring of 2023, and TPA will “have it out of the ground in about four years.”

Post-pandemic growth

Lopano relayed that the nation’s 28th busiest airport generates $14.4 billion in economic activity and supports 121,000 jobs. When he assumed the helm in 2011, Lopano said the airport took in $173 million in operating revenue. That number is now up to $317 million.

“So, our top line has grown quite substantially,” he said. “You can see what happened during Covid, and we’ve grown very, very quickly since that time.”

Statistics show that after serving 22.1 million passengers in the fiscal year 2019, just 13.4 million people utilized the airport in 2020 and 15.4 million last year. TPA now projects it will handle 21.6 million travelers in FY 2022.

The airport’s monthly departing passenger rate is 94.6% of pre-pandemic levels, compared to the national average of 89.3%. Revenues have recovered even faster.

TPA now serves more markets than before the pandemic. Screengrab.

TPA projects $317 million in operating revenues for FY 2022, a significant increase from the $271.7 million it accrued in 2019. Lopano said airport officials “are very pleased with that statistic.”

Lopano also expressed his excitement over offering nonstop flights to London Heathrow for the first time later this year. Virgin Atlantic, which he called a “premier brand,” is facilitating the service.

“The fact that they chose Tampa is an indication of how much we’ve grown,” he added. “And how much we’re on the world stage now.”


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    September 6, 2022at11:06 am

    Used the Blue departure carry on new drop off on Labor Day! It is brilliant and I hardly realized I was in TPA, dropped off my daughter and amazingly was out of the airport in minutes!!
    This is so exciting for those of us living in Tampa Bay and taking and picking up guests! I will tell my guests to ONLY BRING CARRY ON!
    Hurry and get the Red done!!!

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