2019 may be a record spring break in Tampa Bay

Airports are bracing for even more revelers and vacationers as the region becomes more popular.

To spend more time at the beach and less at the airport, plan ahead during what could be the Tampa Bay area’s busiest spring break ever, say officials at the region’s main airports in Tampa and Pinellas County. [Florida Beach Insider photo]
To spend more time at the beach and less at the airport, plan ahead during what could be the Tampa Bay area’s busiest spring break ever, say officials at the region’s main airports in Tampa and Pinellas County. [Florida Beach Insider photo]

TAMPA — College students begin arriving this week, and Tampa Bay area airports are bracing for what could be their busiest spring break ever.

Passenger traffic is already up at Tampa International Airport, which expects up to 3.6 million passengers total during the next six weeks, typically its busiest month and a half of the year. If everyone shows up, that would be an 8.8 percent increase over last year.

On its peak days, those daily counts could swell to 80,000 or 90,000 — or about 20,000 more than on a typical day. At Airside C alone, Southwest Airlines is planning up to 127 departures on Saturdays, up from its usual average of 90 to 95 daily departures.

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To get ready, the airport has planned for extra traffic and the need for more police, enhanced guest services and more janitors, as well as increased staffing in shops and restaurants. Federal Transportation Security Administration will have extra officers in place at peak times in coordination with scheduled flights.

St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport projects that it will see 240,000 passengers in March, an increase over the 237,000 from March 2018. At the time, that was the largest number of passengers in a single month in the history of the airport.

This week, the Pinellas airport has 171 flights scheduled, or 25 more than it was seeing per week in February, according to airport spokewoman Michele Routh. After this week, the number of weekly flights rises to 180, 180 and 186 over the following three weeks.

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With all these crowds, here are some travel tips:

• Arrive early, at least two hours before your flight.

• When picking up passengers at Tampa International, use the cell phone lot or the first free hour of the short-term parking garage. Waiting at the arriving flights curb is not permitted.

• At St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, build even more extra time into your schedule. That's because road construction this week moved the main airport entrance to a spot near the control tower.

The road construction is related to the Florida Department of Transportation’s Gateway Express project to build an elevated toll road from the Bayside Bridge to Interstate 275. As a result, direct access from 46th Street to the Airport Parkway will no longer be available. Instead, use the new main entrance.

Drivers headed to the Key Lime economy parking lot and the airport employee parking lot across Roosevelt Boulevard from the airport should turn onto 144th Avenue. To get to the more distant Strawberry economy parking lot north of the airport, take Airport Parkway to Fairchild Drive. Parking shuttles may also take longer, so plan accordingly, officials say.

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In addition, the airport’s ground transportation lot and short-term parking lots closed temporarily earlier this month because of construction. Airport ground transportation and hotel, super shuttle and offsite rental car shuttle companies are picking up passengers in front of the terminal in the meantime. Visitors picking up passengers should use the cellphone lot or long-term parking lot. For more information, call (727) 453-7800.

• Leave your pets at home unless they're flying or are a service animal. Tampa's airport recently tightened this rule, and the Pinellas airport does not allow pets, only service animals, in its terminal.

• Before leaving home, check your pockets and carry-on luggage for any items — guns, ammunition, flammable or sharp items — not permitted through security screening.

• For travel alerts and updates, follow Tampa International Airport at @FlyTPA and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport at @iflypie on Twitter.

This article was originally published in the Tampa Bay Times on March 1, 2019.

Richard Danielson is an economic development reporter for the Tampa Bay Times.