The airport’s Transportation Security Administration team was honored for its collaboration and innovation.
D’Ann Lawrence White , Patch Staff
CLEARWATER, FL — Lying in the shadow of Tampa International Airport with its growing list of accolades and achievements, St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport has often been overlooked.
But that’s about to change. This week, the Transportation Security Administration named St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport the 2022 Airport of the Year in the small to medium-sized airports category as part of the annual TSA Honorary Awards.
And recently, PIE's accolades and plans for a $106 million expansion caught the attention of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., which has included St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport in “America By Air” in the "What's New" section of the exhibition, which features the latest news in aviation.
“Last month, I visited the exhibit while on a business trip to D.C and was appreciative of PIE's recognition,” PIE Director Tom Jewsbury said.
While the airport is receiving extra attention due to the TSA honors, the credit actually goes to the TSA team at PIE, which beat out teams at 333 other airports around the country for the honor.
The TSA employees at PIE were recognized for outstanding achievements in operational and mission support functions that resulted in improvements, superior performance and low passenger wait-times while also successfully navigating through record-breaking passenger volumes.
While the mission of the TSA airport teams is to safeguard the nation’s air transportation system, TSA Administrator David Pekoske said the team at PIE has expanded that mission to ensure that passengers boarding planes are able to navigate the post-9/11 security systems in place quickly and with as little inconvenience as possible.
"TSA is among the most agile agencies in the federal government," said Pekoske. "The TSA Honorary Awards spotlight the agility, determination and innovative spirit of TSA employees. I am privileged to recognize these award recipients, who have distinguished themselves through their extraordinary accomplishments and have made significant contributions in support of TSA's mission."
Greater Tampa Bay Federal Security Director Kirk Skinner, who oversees TSA's operations at PIE, Tampa International and Sarasota-Bradenton International airports, said the PIE team has gone above and beyond the call of duty to foster a spirit of collaboration with the airport’s leadership and employees as well as the passengers who fly into and out of PIE every day.
"The TSA PIE team's extraordinary accomplishments and significant contributions in support of TSA's mission were made possible thanks to the effective collaboration and strong partnership with PIE's airport authority and stakeholders,” Skinner said. “The relationships at PIE are built on trust and cooperation in every aspect of transportation security."
The announcement comes on the heels of some big changes taking place at PIE, which is currently experiencing a 4 percent increase in year-to-date passenger growth over 2022.
In April, 219,190 people flew on domestic flights in and out of PIE and the airport welcomed 3,769 international passengers. So far this year, 836,323 have flown in and out of PIE.
With record-breaking numbers of passengers using PIE and the airport’s plans to ramp up its non-stop flights, Jewsbury announced the airport’s expansion.
"It's really the traffic that is driving this expansion," Jewsbury said. "Last year was the biggest passenger year in PIE's 65-year history. The decade prior to the 2020 pandemic year resulted in over 180 percent growth in passengers. The time has come to prepare for the future.”
He said a major part of that growth is driven by the airlines that have made PIE part of their regular routes.
Over the past five years, PIE has experienced double-digit passenger growth in serving Allegiant Air, Sun Country Airlines and Swoop Airlines, which offers non-stop connections to Canada. In total, the airlines have created non-stop connections to more than 60 cities through PIE, he said.
“We have low-cost carriers that provide point-to-point service and award-winning beaches that everyone wants to visit. Our ability to grow is because of these types of carriers and the fact Florida has recovered faster than most states during the pandemic,” Jewsbury said.
A major component of the multi-year expansion entails building a new passenger boarding level on the second floor and adding more aircraft parking spaces to accommodate the growing numbers, he said. Currently, the airport has ground-level boarding.
Pie will also transform various sections of the airport to make them more efficient and user-friendly, he said.
One area that will be reconfigured is the current concession area, which doesn’t serve passengers after they’ve gone through security.
PIE will also reconfigure the two-checkpoint design into a single large checkpoint for the two terminals.
The entire expansion will take place in five phases. Phases one through three are geared toward consolidating the TSA checkpoints, expanding the holding rooms, adding more concession space and vendors and building a new level for passenger boarding.
Phases four and five call for a new pier concept, which is a narrow building for aircraft that will extend to the north and bring additional gates.
Jewsbury said the majority of funding will come from state and federal grants.
He’s anticipating a $2 million grant from the Florida Department of Transportation as well as a portion of the funds from the newly passed national infrastructure bill.
After all is said and done, the people of Pinellas County will be the ultimate beneficiaries, he said.
“The economic impact of our airport is now estimated at over $3.4 billion and growing,” Jewsbury said. “Developing the infrastructure to support more travel opportunities to our destination and providing non-stop, low-cost travel for our local community is key to economic and job growth.”
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