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Florida Matters: Tampa International Airport's Joe Lopano On A Long Recovery Ahead

There has been a 97 percent reduction in travelers at Tampa International Airport.
Daylina Miller/WUSF Public Media
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

When almost everybody is staying at home, that obviously doesn't bode well for the state's tourism industry. And for all those tourists flying into some of the nation's biggest tourist destinations -- well, they're not. Some estimates have airport traffic down to a trickle. The not-so-friendly skies has had a ripple effect on businesses that rely on airports for their livelihoods. Other restrictions are being slowly lifted, so we'll start to get a feel for how businesses are going to recover.

Gov. Ron DeSantis tapped several task forces to look at how and when we should be going back to business as normal.  One of the business leaders who was part of the Re-Open Florida Task Force is Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano.


So what I've been reading, airport traffic and most airports in the nation is down by nine-tenths. What are we seeing at Tampa international right now?

It's a 97% reduction in travelers. During the spring break, it would be not uncommon for us to have 40,000 travelers in the terminals, and today we just barely broke 2,000.

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Click here to listen to our Florida Matters interview with Balaji Padmanabhan, a professor of economics at the University of South Florida Muma College of Business, and director of the Center for Analytics and Creativity, about the prospects for businesses recovering from coronavirus closures

So tell me about the impact is having on the businesses there are many businesses open. I'd imagine a few restaurants are doing takeout services. Anything else still open there?

Yes, at each airside we have left two businesses open -- one food and beverage and one retail. And at the main terminal, we still have two restaurants open -- Wendy's and also the Chick-fil-A are open.

Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano
Credit Tampa International Airport
The Florida Channel
Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano

I'd imagine since most of the concessionaires there are chains of bigger businesses, they're probably more apt to come roaring back when business gets back to normal rather than some of the smaller mom and pop places we see elsewhere.

Yeah, well, the thing is that we've introduced a lot of local restaurant concepts and local businesses into the airport and they they are not national chains. And they probably don't have the kinds of capitalization that let's say TGI Fridays, would have had so it's a little bit different. It's about 50% national brands and 50% local brands.

You have businesses that were doing so good that you actually opened the terminals that you have to take the trains to that you really have to have a ticket to get on them. So you were opening them up on a kind of a day-by-day basis. And that was going pretty well. How do you think that's going to be affected in the future?

It was going great. I mean, we started out allowing, I think it was 100 people, and we increased that and allowed it every day. And it was going great. I mean, people actually just like hanging out at the airport watching people go through the terminals and having a good lunch or drink or whatever a date, perhaps. And I think that that will probably come back just like I believe most things that we were used to before we'll come back and but I don't think it's going to be anytime soon.

There have been reports of some of the airlines have been cutting back. I read that Southwest Airlines, for instance, is cutting pay and benefits and suspended more than half their flights and planned to drop more in the coming weeks. They're the largest airline at Tampa International. How much is this going to affect other businesses at the airport?

The effect is terrible. Actually, it affects everybody. It affects the shared-ride Uber world, taxi world, rental car world, hotel world. Everything that the state of Florida relies on, has been affected in a very, very negative way. So we hope to keep our employees in place, we hope to keep our team in place. And as we come back, we're going to need people to run the airport because, you know, an airport is not a place that you can close off certain sections and and save workers or save money. And it's an all-or-nothing kind of proposition. So we need to be ready for when we come back. We are seeing anecdotally some increases in passengers and we believe that, you know, over a long period of time, people are going to either discover therapeutics or understand more about social distancing and how to avoid this thing. And they'll begin to try to live a semi-normal life using good safety precautions.

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When I think of social distancing, probably being inside an airline is the last place I'd really want to be you're in a middle tube eight miles high and breathing recirculated air. And heaven forbid if you're in the middle seat. That's a really difficult place to social distance, how is that going to be handled?

So that really is something that the airlines are working on right now. And what we're trying to do at the airport, is we're launching something called TPA Ready. And what we're doing is we're trying to in the lane that we're in, which is the airport lane, we're trying to make it as safe, clean and secure as possible. And then when the airlines figure out what they want to do, it'll be a seamless transition through the airport off of the airplane. And hopefully everyone can feel confident and safe. So some of the things that we've put in place that we benchmarked others, quite frankly, to learn what the best practices are, including companies like Walmart or Universal Studios. And we also benchmark our European airport colleagues who are now opening before us, but we never closed, but they're starting to reopen their economies. We've learned a lot of things.

I mean, for an example, all of our employees are required to wear masks anytime they're in the public area, and we've encouraged our tenants and concessionaires to do the same thing. And we're encouraging our customers who come out to fly to wear masks when they come out for travel. In addition to that, we've put down various markers on the floors to keep people distance by at least six feet. We've changed our security checkpoint lines to keep people further separated. We've installed plastic shields at the ticket counters and gate counters to help protect the workers from any spread of the germ. We've very much increased our cleaning protocols, especially focus on high touch areas, such as railings, elevator buttons, and our shuttle trains as well keep them nice and clean. So we're trying everything we can to make the customer feel safe. And make sure that we're doing everything that an airport can do. Now what airlines do, will be up to them. But we're focused on our part of the journey.

Are you able to do some projects there that you wouldn't normally be able to do with normal traffic this time of year?

We're taking advantage of this slow period, with very few cars on the road, very few passengers in the terminals. To expedite our projects. As an example, our ticket counter renovation project was going to take a certain amount of time because we had to work around passengers, we've been able to accelerate that significantly, and that saves us money. And it's also the work will be done, when the passengers come back. They won't have to see all of that pardon our dust stuff.

The other one is our roadway project. As you know, we're building Express Lanes for the roadway. And without having so many cars on the road, we've been able to actually close the blue rivals drive so that the workers can work 24/7, and that's again saving us money and time.

And the other thing, we've had projects that were awarded, that could have been stopped, especially to small local businesses, but we said, Now hold on. If this money is supposed to be used to keep jobs going, then we want to continue these projects, and make sure that we keep these local contractors busy. Because when the time comes that this thing stops, we got to have all these guys ready, because we'll come back at some point.

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travelers wearing face coveringsMasked and ready to fly at Tampa International AirportCredit DAYLINA MILLER/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA Edit | Remove

Florida Matters: Tampa International Airport's Joe Lopano On A Long Recovery Ahead

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Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.