SkyConnect Gets Off the Ground at Tampa Bay Airport

Dec. 26, 2017
Tampa International Airport's focus on growth takes a big step forward in 2018 as its new landside improvements come on line.

Early in 2018, Tampa International Airport will celebrate the opening of its new rental car center, main terminal expansion and SkyConnect, the people mover that connects the two buildings. The project marks the largest expansion since the airport broke ground on the existing terminal 50 years ago.

At that time, the airport was hailed for its novel design, featuring a landside/airside concept that focused on passenger comfort enabled by the world’s first automated people mover, a transportation innovation foreshadowing the automated vehicle revolution now in the making.

Fifty years later, our current capital program builds on those principles of passenger comfort and innovation. We remain true to the notion that no passenger should ever have to walk more than 700 steps to get from point A to point B. Kiosks for bag check and boarding passes will be available in the rental car center on opening day, a customer amenity rare in today’s airports. To help bring in local aspects, the train design features native birds selected with the help of the Audubon Society, and the airport community helped pick the SkyConnect name through Internet polling.

When we cut the ribbon on the project next year, three years after we first turned dirt, we’ll do so as a team that reached its goal by keeping laser focused on preparing the airport for future growth while also meeting the needs of our current passengers and always keeping in mind: We are an airport first, a construction zone second.

We established the need for the project in 2012 when we put the finishing touches on an updated Master Plan. Our existing terminal was built to accommodate 25 million annual passengers. Master Plan projections showed us hitting that milestone around 2025. Our team determined the best solution to meet that demand was a three-phase program that, when completed around 2026, will allow us to serve 34 million annual passengers. That’s more than double the number we served in 2013 when the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority Board voted unanimously to move forward with the Master Plan.

Phase 1 – a $971 million project – calls for us to expand our terminal by 55,000 square feet to accommodate passenger circulation as well as greeters, and to move our rental car operations from their location across the street from baggage claim. The rental car companies have no room to grow in that space. Limited space for vehicle storage means customers have to wait while a rental car jockey drives their cars from a remote location to the customer service center. The customer then drives out along our curbsides and roadway, drives in on our roadway to return the car, and then a rental car jockey drives it back to the maintenance and storage site. That means each vehicle makes four trips on our roadway, creating a huge congestion problem, considering we are the ninth largest rental car market in the country. By moving the rental car operations out, we remove 2.7 million car trips a day from our roads and curbs. In the new 2.6 million square foot facility, we will also have enough space to bring nearly every off-airport rental car company on-airport, doubling the number of offerings and price-points for our customers – and increasing revenues for the airport.

With a location for the new rental car center set for about 1.4 miles away from the main terminal, we turned to the task of determining how best to transport travelers to the terminal. We explored busing, but headways and turning radiuses required for buses sized for adequate passenger movement eliminated that option.The SkyConnect emerged as the logical choice. It supports our legacy and our commitment to outstanding customer service.

Working with our designers, we settled on a train that travels along a guideway that starts at a main terminal station situated 85 feet in the air, snakes over an existing people mover guideway down to ground level and under a taxiway bridge then rises up again to a station at the economy parking garage and continues to its final stop at the rental car center.

Construction of the guideway presented multiple challenges. We had to demolish the taxiway bridge and rebuild it wide enough to accommodate SkyConnect. Support columns for the new guideway had to be placed within inches of existing guideways. And all of the work had to be done in a fast-growing airport with an imperative to safely and efficiently serve tens of thousands of passengers every day, the friends and families picking them up and dropping them off, our employees and our tenants.

Throughout, safety and customer service remained a top priority. On the safety front, we implemented a signage program to constantly remind workers that airport customers were moving just outside construction walls. Contractors conducted safety meetings on a daily basis. Inspectors kept an eye on worksites to monitor safety standards.

Operational impacts required robust communication with customers and careful coordination with partners. From early September 2016 through early 2017, we closed our arrival and departure curbsides from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. for construction of the SkyConnect guideway, with a temporary suspension of activity during the holidays and the National College Football Championship in January

The closures were necessary to ensure the safety of guests, employees and tenants while crews lifted steel beams that weigh up to 146,000 pounds – about the weight of a Boeing 737-700 – and poured concrete for the SkyConnect guideway in the areas that took it over the roadways as well an existing people mover guideway that connects Airside A to the terminal. During this process, there could be no activity underneath.

The closure affected all passengers on American, Delta, JetBlue and United airlines. During that time, all pick-ups and drop-offs were directed to Short Term Parking.

In what was a common practice throughout the project, we conducted a dry-run of the closures several days in advance of the final closure to refine the operations plan. A public relations campaign about the closures got the word out to our community. An extensive signage program and team of strategically stationed customer service representatives helped guide passengers from baggage claim to temporary pick-up areas and around other parts of the airport. Daily debriefs identified issues throughout the closure period. This commitment to be an airport first meant we had very few complaints during the closures.

The SkyConnect cars arrived in July at the Port of Tampa with much fanfare. We celebrated the delivery with Florida Governor Rick Scott, secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation, a representative from vehicle manufacturer Mitsubishi and the consul general of Japan. Testing of the SkyConnect on the guideway has begun. We expect to begin full service operation in February. With the end of the Phase 1 of the Master Plan nearing completion, we are beginning work on Phase 2: a commercial development around the rental car center that will include an office building and hotel with easy access to SkyConnect, and express lanes at each of our curbsides for use exclusively by passengers with no checked bags. Our final phase is a 16-gate airside.

Working closely with our contractors, we expect Phase 1 to come in under budget and only slightly behind schedule. We’re pleased with those results, and excited about the future.

We stand on the shoulders of those airport leaders who came before us, and who faced bumps in the road on the way to realizing their vision but remained focused on the end result.

In 1971, the first weekend after the first week of operation of the then-new Tampa International Airport, 70,000 Tampa Bay area residents clogged airport roadways just to get a glimpse of its wonders. Official delegations from nearly 50 countries – including Turkey, Germany and Belgium - traveled to Tampa for a first-hand look. A local newspaper article published one year after the opening deemed Tampa International Airport the “world’s most modern airport” and one of the area’s top tourist attractions, and quoted visitors who called it “beautiful,” “fantastic” and “lovely.” It was apt that the airport of the future came out of the ground in the same place that gave rise to the world’s first scheduled flight, piloted by aviation pioneer Tony Jannus across Tampa Bay.

Now, in an era of social media and on the edge of our transformation to an automated transportation network, people from all over the world tune into to our Facebook live broadcasts showing progress on the SkyConnect. We look forward to welcoming local travelers, tourists and the just plain curious to share in our excitement early next year when we the train goes into service, entering a new chapter into Tampa International Airport’s unique story of innovation.

Joe was appointed CEO on January 1, 2011, as Tampa International Airport’s new Chief Executive Officer. He has worked 37 years in the aviation industry. Prior to accepting the CEO position in Tampa, he worked at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport for 14 years as its Executive Vice President for Marketing and Terminal Management. His experience also encompasses 19 years in the airline industry, including serving in leadership positions at Continental Airlines.
Joe serves on the boards of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, Visit Tampa Bay, the Westshore Alliance, the Tampa Bay Partnership, the Tampa Bay Defense Alliance, the U.S. Travel Association’s Gateway Airports Council and the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization. He is a member of the executive committees for the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation, the Airports Council International–North America U.S. Policy Board and the Tony Jannus Society. He is an Honorary Commander at MacDill Air Force Base, and was selected to participate in Leadership Florida. He serves on the board of Airports Council International-World and the National Advisory Committee on Travel and Tourism Infrastructure, which advises the U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary.
Joe was named Visit Tampa Bay’s 2015 Ambassador of the Year and received the 2015 Aviation Professional of the Year Award from the Florida Department of Transportation. He received a bachelor’s in finance and accounting from Pace University in New York. He and his wife, Janet, live in South Tampa and have three grown children.