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AIRPORT PROFILES Last modified on August 26, 2011

Big business

Oliver Clark talks to Tampa CEO, Joe Lopano, about his new business strategy for the Florida gateway.

Big changes are afoot at Tampa International Airport where new CEO, Joe Lopano, drives forward his plan to corporatise the gateway.

Among his top priorities are plans to make the gateway more efficient, more transparent and more like a big business.

In February, he reformed Tampa’s management structure, creating six new vice president positions to cover key areas, such as customer service, marketing, business planning and corporate affairs to create “the best management team in the country”.

Lopano says: “The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board’s priorities were to encourage a much more transparent management process, encourage a lot more collaboration, and understanding of the value of commercial opportunities, not to mention firmly increasing flights and air services.

“That’s what we are involved with here, creating a much more corporatised set of titles and alignment, so as to operate much more like a typical big corporation.”

Lopano has also brought new blood to the airport, such as Chris Miner, previously assistant vice president at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), now vice president at Tampa. The hunt is still on for a new CFO.

Much of Lopano’s vision for Tampa stems from his 14 years as executive vice president of marketing and terminal management at (DFW), an airport where a uniquely Texan spirit of entrepreneurship holds sway.

Here he was given the freedom to drive everything from route and cargo development, real estate to advertising and marketing, while also serving on the board of such bodies as the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce and the DFW Airport Grand Hyatt Hotel; these myriad experiences have proved invaluable.

“At DFW, I was in charge of marketing, air service development, customer service aviation and real estate – a pretty broad portfolio and a good background to run an airport, plus I have a finance and accounting qualifications,” says Lopano.

“Before DFW, I was with Continental and Lufthansa, and having experience both ways (airport and airline) was a real help.”

The current restructure is essential as Lopano pursues his priorities at Tampa by primarily adopting a more aggressive airline marketing campaign to attract new carriers; carrying through a $166 million infrastructure programme to 2014; and, where possible, improve Tampa’s already award-winning customer service programme.

One of Florida’s main airports and the biggest on the west coast, TPA handled 16.6 million passengers and 84,300 tons of cargo in 2010, with the bay area a key high technology and industrial centre for the state.

The airport suffered during the economic downturn with a 1.8% drop in traffic, but with passengers up 2.8% in April 2011, Lopano believes TPA has “seen the bottom” and can now predict 2-3% year-on-year growth.

With revenues and traffic returning to normal, the next step is to increase the mix of carriers and grow TPA’s list of destinations, and Lopano is a man with a plan.

“One of the things we have started doing is being very aggressive in our marketing to get increasing flights from existing carriers and get new carriers to fly here,” says Lopano.

“We are seeing economic growth starting to come back, local companies are travelling more, they are parking in high-yield car parks, people are spending more in concessions.”

Tampa is currently well served by domestic US carriers. Its biggest carrier in 2010 was Southwest with 32.6% market share. Other prominent carriers include Delta, US Airways and American Airlines, and things are hotting up on the San Juan-Tampa route, where Air Tran and JetBlue are actively competing.

But Tampa lacks long-haul connections; of its top 25 markets in 2010 none were outside the US, and so Lopano is actively seeking out new international routes.

In May, he travelled to Panama with recently installed Tampa mayor, Bob Buckhorn, to convince Copa Airlines to start direct flights to the gateway.

His thinking is a direct service to Copa’s hub of Tocumen International Airport will give Tampa residents access to onward destinations in Central and South America.

“I don’t think we will get a flight to Australia anytime soon [as DFW did], but it involves the same techniques in a more targeted fashion. Tampa is a different animal to DFW, but we still want an aggressive marketing campaign to try to get more domestic and international flights.”

With big neighbours on the doorstep, including Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, competition is tough, but Tampa has grabbed its share of traffic successfully by offering a high standard of customer service – both to its airlines and passengers.

Thanks to a cost saving programme which is now in its third year, a carefully regulated CAPEX programme and other efficiencies, Tampa has kept costs almost flat for three years, while airlines can make up to $5 per passenger, he says.

“We have frozen salaries and recruitment, we are also not replacing everyone who decides to move on, so if someone wants to retire we ask ourselves if what they did is essential and whether we need that function,” he explains.

Despite the savings, Tampa will continue to pursue its Horizon I capital development programme, under which $166 million is being invested in such assets as the international terminal, parking and rental facilities and the airfield between 2010 and 2014.

Recent and ongoing projects include a $8.4 million revamp of existing exterior signage for the ticketing and baggage claim level curbsides at the landside terminal building, due to be completed in 2012, and upgrades to the short-term parking garage that were completed in March.

On the environment side, TPA recently gave the go-ahead for the first Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) fuel facility at an airport in Florida and it is now soliciting information from local companies to determine the practicality of introducing CNG powered buses.

In 2010, Tampa was ranked third in the US for customer service in Conde Nast Traveler’s annual business traveller survey and scooped an IATA Eagle Award in 2008. So how does Lopano plan to improve on this?

The Tampa Bay area has a thriving artistic community and boasts several museums, including the new $36 million Salvador Dali Museum, which opened in nearby St Petersburg in January, and the airport has a long history of involvement.

TPA boasts it’s very own collection of works by local artists and installations, pictures and even tapestries, with some of which date back to the 1930s. These are dotted around the international terminal where permanent and visiting exhibitions take place and Lopano is keen to continue and expand it.

Other innovations include the introduction of soothing music as passengers check-in, improvement work to the airport’s monorail system, free WiFi and a business centre where people can plug in their laptops, mobiles and cameras.

Lopano likes to think of his airport as a place that’s so welcoming people feel like they could be relaxing at home, and he has a good analogy for this vision.

“Our international terminal was often described by the late executive director George Bean as being like somebody’s living room. Now we are getting a colour TV for that living room,” jokes

Lopano. Lopano may have only been at Tampa eight months but he has already made a big impact and promises a number of “new, exciting projects in the next three to four months”, so watch this space!

This article features in Airport World 2011 - Issue 3

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