Tip of the Hat to Tampa

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As readers of this blog know, I am no wall flower when it comes to complaining about bad customer service. There's a lot of it out there, which makes those rare examples of exceptional service stand out all the more. Today's blog is about one of those.

The economics of publishing and aviation being what they are, I rarely have the pleasure of flying a light airplane on an editorial assignment. Usually, the only choice is a quick airline flight out and back. This week had its shining example when I had one day to get to Philadelphia, shoot photos and video for an article, and return that evening. I left the house at 5 a.m. and got back at 2 a.m. the following day. No complaints. That's just the way it is sometimes.

I normally fly out of Tampa which is, by my lights, one of the world's great airports. The architecture is perfectly suited to the task, the location is good, fares are competitive, the terminal has free wireless—a huge plus for me—and there are laptop workstations in some waiting areas. Whoever runs the place cares enough to keep it sparkling clean.

Contrast that with Philadelphia where the power outlets in the concourses either don't work or hang out of their boxes and the bathrooms sometimes make a military latrine seem like a five-star hotel. Tampa has a cellphone lot, Philly has cops who chase people away from idling on the feeder route shoulders.

Tampa has a great economy parking garage, but it has one glaring weakness: the automated terminals to accept credit payments don't work very well. You stick your card in the slot and either nothing happens or the automatic gate won't open. This week, I experienced the mother of all malfunctions, requiring about a dozen cars to back up to reposition into other lines to find a working terminal. Only one terminal finally did, after numerous tries. This is the last thing I want to be doing at 1 a.m. So I complained.

Within hours, I got an e-mail from the airport authority to call them. (What's this, some kinda hoax?) Nope, the airport authority's David Gavenda questioned me at length about what happened and when. We talked for 15 minutes and he pledged to look into it and get back to me. This strikes me as exceptionally competent public management and good customer response.

Try that in New York. Or Boston. Or Philadelphia. Now I can hear the excuses forming up already—those airports have far more humanity streaming through them than Tampa does, so you have to expect them to be filthy and staffed by people who tend toward the surly. If you think surly doesn't apply to Philly, you haven't visited recently. And by the way, Philadelphia ranks 17th in enplanements, while Tampa is 26th. Not that much difference.

I submit that customer orientation has less to do with size and everything to do with how the airport managers view their job. Do they take pride in their facility? Do they care what people think of it? That sort of thing is somehow encoded in the cultural DNA and businesses that have it are just standouts.

Tampa Airport is one of those. And it's worth saying it.

Comments (4)

Its been 20 years or better since I've flown into Tampa, so I can't add or detract to Paul's opin. However, I do fly out of DFW on a regular basis to DCA, BWI and MDW. All three destinations are pretty skanky on cleanliness and service, but DFW is one of the best in the country. Even the TSA is smiling and helpful. But if you want some real service, try flying your light single or twin into a USAF base unanounced. Man, the service is outstanding. They will escort you to the ramp, unload your luggage (and everything else for that matter) and carry it for you, park and tie down the plane, have a limo take you to your accomodations - all without so much as asking. Of course, the accomodations could improve, but...

Posted by: Roger Dugan | July 1, 2009 6:42 PM    Report this comment

Insider Tampa secret: If you're dropping off a passenger who already has a boarding pass, has carry-on luggage and you want to escort them to the concourse, park in the short term and take the ramp to Level 5. If you can work your way back to the elevator there is usually plenty of parking. Take the Sikorsky elevator down to Level Three, which puts you immediately adjacent to the concourse for Southwest. It's an easy one-level walk to the other concourses. Kiss and run back to Level Five. If you're within 30 minutes, parking is free...Tampa also has a new SunPass lane for people equipped with Florida's toll pay transponders. Put your ticket in first, position your SunPass next to the windshield, and the gate will open. Again, keep it within 30 minutes and parking is free...

Posted by: Tim Cole | July 2, 2009 8:02 AM    Report this comment

Agreed. Tampa is one of the better airports in many respects. Interestingly, in one of the concourses you'll find Bernoulli's equation used as a wall ornament. It doesn't necessarily improve passenger comfort or services but it shows that the airport is focused on its core business - flying.

Posted by: TOMMY WIKLIND | July 2, 2009 9:06 AM    Report this comment

Roger your opinion. This great airport terminal was built in 1969-70 for $67 million, if you can believe that--what a bargain. I represented a small nonunion contractor way back then who had only a dozen workers installing conduits for electric lines at the airport. A local union picketed the construction site, causing 600 union workers to observe the picket line. The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority could have easily forced my little nonunion client to leave but, to their credit, they did not. We filed secondary boycott charges against the picketing union; they withdrew the pickets and the job proceeded. Thanks, HCAA !

Posted by: Dan Coffman | July 2, 2009 2:44 PM    Report this comment

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