Andrew Skerritt: Trying to take off, Tallahassee Airport wants to go international

If you live in Florida’s capital city, one routine complaint is the airport: Flights are too expensive; it’s just hard getting anywhere from here.

So city officials are trying to change the narrative, if not the flight path of Tallahassee Regional Airport. They want to join the ranks of Melbourne International and Sarasota-Bradenton International.

Before you get too excited about huge jets disgorging thousands of passengers from Tokyo and Paris into the Big Bend, this is mostly a bureaucratic maneuver. So the Tallahassee City Commission approved seeking an agreement with U.S Customs and Border Protection for the airport to be designated as a point-of-entry, user-fee facility with an international arrivals terminal, the Tallahassee Democrat recently reported.

This is going to cost money. According to the CBP website, the fees include $140,874 per inspector for the first year and $123,438 for succeeding years. ADP costs per inspector — $17,042 to $21,062 (first year) and $13,620 to $17,640 for succeeding years, depending on the location. With domestic airfares at TLH already too expensive, who pays? Will domestic passengers have to pay the freight for the non-existent international flights?

Not surprisingly, airport officials hired consultants to tell them exactly what they wanted to hear. All the airport needs is more marketing and branding and things will improve. Apparently, the internationalization of regional airports is the latest trend in general aviation: Corpus Christi, Texas; South Bend, Ind. — you get the picture. It sounds like a gimmick hatched around a bar late one night at the annual airport managers conventions. You can’t just slap an international tag on your hanger and call it JFK.

And what about the airlines? Tallahassee is served by four airlines, three of which offer international flights — American Airlines, Delta and US Airways, just not out of Tallahassee. Silver Airways offers daily flights to Tampa and Orlando.

If an airport doesn’t have international flights, can it still call itself international.

This looks like a desperate attempt to spur growth at Tallahassee Regional, where the 697,000 passengers who passed through the terminal in 2013 were 40,000 fewer than used the airport in 2009, when this country was still in the grip of the Great Recession.

As the state capital, Tallahassee has a problem created by its founders. It’s stuck in the middle of nowhere. Amtrak doesn’t even serve us anymore. While the airport website boasts that the facility services an area of 1.4 million people, including residents of 11 neighboring Florida counties and 12 South Georgia counties, many of those prospective passengers prefer the inconvenience of driving a bit farther to Panama City or Jacksonville for less expensive international and domestic flights.

But that’s just the problem of trying to leave. What about giving people a reason to come beyond a Saturday afternoon of Seminole Football at Doak Campbell Stadium? Someone once said FSU can’t be a great university because it isn’t located in a great city. They might have well been talking about our airport. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Andrew J. Skerritt lives in Tallahassee, Fla. He is the author of Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial and the AIDS Epidemic in the South. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewjskerritt. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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