'Other' airport gets facelift

June 26, 2007

Jun. 26--ST. PETERSBURG -- Rebounding from its slowest year in recent history, the Tampa Bay area's "other" airport is about get a makeover.

The $9.5-million terminal renovation at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International will create more seating space for departing travelers, expand ticket counters and replace pipes that date to the 1950s.

Perhaps the most obvious change: the airport's first jet-loading bridges, tunnels that passengers walk through to board and exit airliners at bigger airports. St. Petersburg-Clearwater International still uses ramps or stairs.

Visitors from wintry climes love the warm breeze in their face as they climb off their plane and walk across the tarmac in March, says Noah Lagos, the airport's executive director. But come the heat and showers of August, it's another story.

"Nobody likes to get off the airplane and get soaking wet or perspire so much you're soaking wet," Lagos said.

A year ago, the idea of expanding tiny St. Petersburg-Clearwater International to handle more passengers would have seemed ridiculous.

The airport lost its two largest carriers when Southeast Airlines shut down in 2004 and ATA departed after striking a partnership with Southwest Airlines, the biggest player at Tampa International Airport.

Passenger traffic plummeted 55 percent to just under 600,000 in 2005 and fell below 400,000 last year -- the lowest level in at least 15 years.

But the airport caught an updraft in November with the arrival of Allegiant Air, a fast-growing discounter based in Las Vegas.

Officials expect 700,000 travelers will go through the airport this year, with Allegiant and USA 3000 Airlines keeping strong schedules through the summer season. (By comparison, Tampa International handled 18.8-million passengers last year.)

"We're starting to become a year-round destination," Lagos told Pinellas County's Tourism Development Council this month.

Much of the renovation work involves expanding a cramped gate area to hold more departing travelers. On busy evenings when three flights are departing about the same time, as many as 600 passengers are in a holding area with 325 chairs.

"It gets very crowded," says airport engineer Frank Aiello. The expanded space will seat 530 in new chairs that replace ones more than 20 years old. Even older are cast iron bathroom pipes from the original airport construction in the 1950s. They'll go, too.

Three artists are proposing designs for a 45-foot-long glass wall, the piece of public art designed for the airport, with a price tag of $110,000. The loading bridges run about $1-million apiece. They will come off a new two-story tower with a glass front facing the ramp.

Work on the gate area should begin in January and be completed in early 2009.

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