Joe Lopano has racked up a long list of achievements in a short time. Since arriving at Tampa International Airport (TPA) in 2011, Lopano has overseen the first phase of a massive, billion-dollar overhaul to the airport, assisted in significantly expanding its international and domestic route reach and even, perhaps, helped an entire region overcome a self-esteem issue.

Lopano joined TPA from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), where he worked for 14 years. He also has 19 years of airline industry experience, having served in several leadership positions at Continental Airlines. Civic leaders say his infectious “can-do” attitude, his willingness to take a chance at making TPA a more international player and his drive to do whatever it takes to help not just the airport but the entire region grow has won over many, some of whom were skeptical when he first arrived.

“It was pretty ugly when I first came to town,” Lopano acknowledges. “It was an uphill battle until we started notching some wins. Success begets success. Once we started winning, people started getting behind me. That allowed me to continue to grow the airport the way we have.” For those efforts, Lopano has been named the Airport Experience News 2018 Director of the Year in the Large Airports division.

 

Change Of Mindset Changes Results

Civic leaders and even those with ties to the airport acknowledge past skepticism that TPA could compete to be a significant player, especially on the international scene, where Tampa has long taken a backseat to Orlando International Airport (MCO) and Miami International Airport (MIA). But Lopano arrived with nearly three decades of experience in aviation and where others had doubt, he brought optimism.

“The community had this feeling of ‘We are the city of no we can’t,’ and I came in and said, ‘We’re the city of watch this,’” Lopano says, adding that he was hugely intrigued by the affluent population located nearby. “When you do the analysis and you realize that within a one-hour drive of our airport, there are roughly 5 million people with the highest per-capita income in the state, that informs you that we could do more.”

Getting people to buy into that was challenging at first, though civic leaders like Mayor Bob Buckhorn and concessionaires like Maryann Ferenc, owner of Mise en Place, noticed his approach and confidence early on. “Joe saw everything we had and all the potential but couldn’t see the barriers we as a community saw, so he didn’t abide by the barriers and he just went for it,” Ferenc says.

Adds Buckhorn: “Joe was the right guy at the right time. Previous airport leadership was more inwardly focused. It was a reflection of the time. Joe was more outwardly focused and more willing to engage.” That paradigm shift resonated with the community, Lopano says, adding that those demographics speak directly to the carriers. Tampa is on pace in 2018 to exceed 22 million passengers. International traffic is up 154 percent since 2010, thanks to 19 new routes on 13 carriers.

 

 

$2B In Capital Projects

As the airport’s route count has increased and the surrounding region has grown, the need for an expansion at TPA became apparent. Lopano has had a significant impact inside the airport’s walls, as well.

TPA is in the second portion of a three-phase, $2 billion overhaul that was passed as part of a new master plan in 2013. The first phase, aimed at decongesting the terminal, finished this year. It included a 2.6-million-square-foot consolidated rental car center, a 1.4-mile automated people-mover called SkyConnect, an expansion of the main terminal building and an overhaul of concessions.

Nearly 70 food, beverage and retail concepts turned over as a result of the new concessions contracts, and many of the new entrants are local and regional additions. “We’re seeing some fairly significant growth in our revenues,” Lopano says. The second phase is slated to double curbside capacity and add a hotel, a convenience store, and a nine-story office building that will be connected to the SkyConnect.

The final phase of the master plan, slated for about five years out, will add a new International Airside D with 16 gates capable of handling international or domestic flights. The building will include a state-of-the-art customs facility. “As we continue to grow internationally that is going to become a critical element of our growth,” Lopano says.

 

National Involvement, Local Impact

Lopano has been a regular in Washington, D.C., testifying on behalf of the industry, and he’s been a leader in mobilizing Florida airports to maximize their sway on Capitol Hill, says Todd Hauptli, president and CEO of American Association of Airport Executives.

Lopano says he is disappointed the Passenger Facilities Charge cap was not increased this year, and he pledges that he and industry leaders will continue pushing that issue, even though the FAA reauthorization bill has been signed. He adds, however, that it’s time for the industry to start seriously considering other options for funding airport projects. He predicts that, despite being pricier due to building a third-party profit margin into the cost of projects, airports will continue increasing the frequency with which they enter public-private partnerships, a model that has become more prominent in the U.S. in recent years. Lopano also says there likely will be changes in the structure of use and lease agreements with airlines. “At the end of the day, someone has to pay the bill for the infrastructure,” he says “The airlines make billions of dollars flying out of your facility. In order to use them, they will have to pay for them.”

 

Editor’s note: The full version of this article appears in the November 2018 issue of AXN Magazine. Click here to subscribe.