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Albert Whitted Airport expansion could have $400 million impact on St. Pete economy

Posted at 6:54 PM, Feb 18, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Big changes could soon be in the works for Albert Whitted Airport in downtown St. Petersburg. The airport expansion is expected to have an estimated $400 million impact on the local economy and also make the airport safer for pilots.

Currently, Albert Whitted Airport’s hangers are 100-percent full with an 80-person waiting list that is growing by the day. Airport officials would like to increase capacity as well as expand the current runway further out into the waters of Tampa Bay.

In the course of 34 years, flight instructor Jack Tunstill has seen the popularity of the downtown airport take off.

“It’s important to the economy, the city and to me. I make a living teaching people how to fly,” he said with a smile.

Richard Lesniak, the manager of Albert Whitted Airport says as the city continues to grow, so does the airport. “The real neat thing about this is the potential benefit of the expansion is not just on the airport. It’s off the airport.”

By expanding the airport runway into the bay and further east, nearby businesses like USF St. Petersburg, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and Bayfront Hospital, would be able to make their buildings taller.

Jennifer Lockwood of Sol Relief, an aviation charity in St. Pete says the expansion would be helpful.

“We get a lot of calls about people wanting to store their airplanes and we’ve been on a waiting list for quite awhile,” Lockwood said.

A big focus will also be on making the runways safer.

“The runways are the same length almost that they were post world war two,” Tunstill elaborated.

ABC Action News has covered a handful of crashes where pilots under-shot the runway, landing in the water and forcing first responders to jump into the bay to their rescue.

“It’s not that the airport is unsafe,” Lesniak explained. “We don’t have rampant safety issues but we’re always looking to reduce risk whenever possible. This expanded runway would put the airplanes up at a higher altitude when they’re landing so there’s more distance between the airplane and the ground.”

Albert Whitted Airport, like all airports, has a runway protection zone. The zone is at the end of the runway and is designed to protect people and property on the ground in case of a crash.

“It’s supposed to be clear of buildings, people and be a clear area. Our runway protection zone sits on top of USF St. Pete’s campus,” Lesniak added.

That’s why airport leaders would like to shift the longer runway, known as 7/25, to the East. The change would bring the airport into the highest current safety standards.

The airport expansion is also projected to add 62 jobs during construction. Outside of the airport, an economic analysis predicted 3,120 new jobs could be added in the area with an economic impact of $381.6 million.

As St. Petersburg explodes in popularity, city leaders say the airport, one of few in the nation located in a bustling downtown, is only expected to get busier.

Airport leaders hope to have a final design plan ready by late summer 2020, in time to host a second public meeting. They hope to start construction, pending approvals from various agencies, in a few years.