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Tampa-St. Pete is a top destination as passengers start to get back on airplanes

Margie Manning

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The taxiway at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport (Photo credit: James Borchuck)

Air travel in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area is showing signs of a faster than expected recovery.

People are making travel plans, and the local area is a top destination, according to top marketers for Tampa International Airport, St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and Allegiant Travel Co.

Bookings to PIE (the location identifier for St. Pete-Clearwater International), are starting to surpass last year’s levels, said Scott DeAngelo, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Allegiant (Nasdaq: ALGT), the dominant airline at the airport.

“We are extremely bullish on leisure travel overall and certainly leisure travel to your part of the world,” DeAngelo said during a Wednesday afternoon webinar hosted by Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

The visitors that leisure travel brings, along with the money they spend on lodging, restaurants and other attractions, are a key part of the local economy. Tourism is the No. 1 employer in Pinellas County, and is responsible for more than 150,000 jobs across Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

PIE is seeing a steady uptick in passenger traffic, said Jeff Clauss, director of air service development and marketing at the airport. Chris Minner, executive vice president of marketing and communications at Tampa International (TPA), said he is seeing encouraging signs that air travel will resume after the bottom fell out in late March and April as the COVID-19 pandemic spread.

TPA had about 2,500 to 3,000 daily passengers during April. Over the Memorial Day weekend, the airport passed the 10,000 mark in daily passengers for the first time since early March.

Passenger traffic at PIE was down 97 percent in April, with fewer than 6,000 passengers for the month, compared to more than 200,000 passenger in April 2019. During the Memorial Day weekend, more than 3,500 passengers came through PIE, Clauss said.

UPDATE: Over 7,700 passengers came through TSA screening and departed from PIE over the three-day Memorial Day weekend, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, with Monday alone accounting for 3,500 passenger departures, a spokeswoman for the airport said. Likely just as many or more arrived during that time, for a total of around 15,000 passengers for those three days, the spokeswoman said.

“While we have a long way to go before we are back to where we were, we’re starting to see a steady upswing and definitely doing better than the industry standard,” Clauss said.

Some Allegiant markets are performing better than others, DeAngelo said.

“Beach markets are doing particularly well, because they opened before theme parks and casino resorts,” he said. “This may be the year for the national park and beach vacation. It lends itself very nicely to feeling like you have  control over your social distancing and other things that are very top of mind for individuals. The west coast of Florida has been the hands down leader coming out of this. The Panhandle as well. I think there’s some combination of a  world class vacation and the natural element of some of the world’s most beautiful beaches that gives people a sense of control that they can keep themselves and their families safe on vacation.”

About 40 percent of the Allegiant passengers who have booked travel have indicated they would stay in a hotel or a vacation rental at their destination, as opposed to staying with a family member or in their own home, DeAngelo said.

The bullish outlook on the webinar stands in contrast to consumer sentiment measured by a Tampa Bay Partnership survey. Flying on an airplane was one of the activities respondents said they were least likely to do anytime soon, according to the mid-April survey.

Allegiant has been polling its customers weekly to assess how they feel about the COVID-19 situation overall, and began to see a surge in optimism in mid-April, DeAngelo said.

This past Sunday, May 24, more than two-thirds of those who responded said the situation was getting somewhat or much better. At the same time, about half of those who responded said it would be six months to a year or longer before life returns to normal.

That likely means people accept the idea of wearing face masks and taking other safety precautions in airports and on planes, but are not willing to give up travel, DeAngelo said.

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