Aug. 23--CLEARWATER -- Contrary to what some people might think, the commercial airports in Tampa and Clearwater are not business competitors.
Tampa International Airport clearly dominates, serving two times more passengers in a month than St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport serves in a year.
The Pinellas County airport's niche is to draw leisure travelers on smaller airlines from the Northeast, Midwest and Canada to the beaches. It also serves aircraft for corporations, general aviation and the U.S. Coast Guard.
This year, however, St. Petersburg-Clearwater International has begun to draw a greater proportion of passengers from the Bay area. They have discovered nonstop access to more than a dozen small cities beyond Florida that are not accessible by nonstop flights from Tampa International.
These days, about one in three passengers who use St. Petersburg-Clearwater International are from the Bay area, compared with one in four in the past, said airport director Noah Lagos.
An increase in flights since Allegiant Air began serving the Pinellas airport in November and a boost in local travelers on Allegiant and USA3000 will generate more than 700,000 passengers for St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport this year, Lagos said. That's up 75 percent from 400,000 passengers in 2006.
Last year's August schedule at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International showed 22 weekly departures to seven U.S. cities, not including charter service to Key West. This year, the airport lists 66 weekly departures to 21 U.S. destinations.
"Our airlines are trying to build the local market, which is getting more people on the planes beyond the tourism seasons," Lagos said. "We are evolving into a year-round travel market."
Consumers have become more aware of Allegiant Air's nonstop flights to Allentown, Pa.; Chattanooga, and Knoxville, Tenn.; Rockford and Peoria, Ill.; Des Moines, Iowa; Fort Wayne and South Bend, Ind.; Greensboro, N.C.; Greenville, S.C.; Roanoke, Va.; Springfield, Mo.; Toledo, Ohio; and Lansing, Mich.
Lagos is trying to spread the word through low-cost marketing, including billboards and notices in utility bills.
"We have created a great deal of new travelers to the area from untapped markets," said Tyri Squyres, director of corporate communications for Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air. "Customers are either taking trips they never had planned to take or are traveling more often because of the nonstop convenience and low fares.
"The one surprise has been the number of passengers originating from the Tampa area," Squyres said. "This has pleasantly exceeded our original expectations."
Passengers also have been pleased. That includes New Port Richey's Kay Collins, who arrived three hours early Wednesday for an 8:15 p.m. flight to Pittsburgh with USA3000. She was going to visit her son and daughter-in-law, who booked her flight out of the Pinellas airport instead of from Tampa because the fare was cheaper.
"I think it's great. There's not so much confusion here," Collins said while waiting Wednesday afternoon at the Pinellas airport.
USA3000 has drawn sufficient passengers on flights between Pinellas and seven major cities also served by nonstop flights from Tampa International to encourage the airline to add a seasonal nonstop flight to Cincinnati in December.
USA3000 said about one-third of the people who booked tickets on its Pinellas flights live in the Bay area, Lagos said.
Christy Ortiz, a spokeswoman for the airline based in Newtown Square, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb, said the convenience of the small Pinellas airport is a key selling point, along with quick baggage service and car rentals.
The drawback for passengers is that the only daily service at the Pinellas airport is USA3000's flights to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
A random sampling of fares from the two Bay area airports to Allentown, Pa., and Des Moines, Iowa, for September flights showed fares generally were within $20 of each other.
Reporter Ted Jackovics can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 259-7817.
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