Tampa International Airport is renowned as one of the world’s best airports, an around-the-clock operation that shuffles more than a million passengers a month.
FOX 13 was recently granted unprecedented access to the airport. We took cameras places they are usually prohibited and shadowed some of the airport’s 7,500 employees.
"Lot of planes, lot of trouble, lot of traffic," said Southwest Airlines veteran Bill Brown. "Nobody gets to see what's behind the scenes like you do."
What struck us was the amount of work taking place out of sight. Much of the airport’s operation, it turns out, churns away under passengers’ feet.
That’s the case at both the main terminal building and the airsides, which house passenger gates.
In the main building, a ‘basement’ houses a computer-controlled baggage system.
Four miles of conveyor belts send bags darting under the check-in area. The suitcases slow only briefly for a security check. They then accelerate toward the plane, and many of them actually ride beneath the trams that shuttle passengers to and from the airsides.
A short distance away in an undisclosed location, behind several locked doors, sits the airport’s command center. Employees don headsets and peer toward a wall of glowing screens.
"We're monitoring cameras throughout the terminal," said manager Kirk Turner, whose staff is also responsible for making overhead announcements.
“The voice of the airport,” he said.
Southwest Airlines, Tampa’s top carrier by passenger volume, granted us incredible access to its nearly non-stop operation.
“This is what you don’t see,” said training manager Mark Holm. “It’s a very, very busy place.”
Holm stood in a cluster of offices located directly beneath the passenger area.
“You are below the gates,” he said.
In the corner of this ground floor nerve center sits dispatcher Sandy Goodman. It’s almost impossible for passengers to see her, and yet she plays a pivotal role.
“I talk to the pilots, tell them what gates to go to,” she said. “This is the hot seat right here.”
When we were there, it was tame, but Goodman says quiet moments are few and far between.
“Oh, it gets crazy,” she said.
From Goodman’s window, she can see the scurry of workers who rush toward a plane as soon as it parks.
Captain Dave Robinson, a former Air Force Thunderbirds pilot, said the teamwork is critical and swift.
“It’s like coming in with an Indy 500 pit crew when you get here,” he said. “The aircraft gets surrounded by people. Within 30 seconds there are five or six people.”
The teamwork is strong and infectious.
“The traveling public probably doesn’t realize the amount of work that goes into the operation on a day-by-day basis,” Holm said.
And there’s irony in that the very place many passengers dread is the only place some people want to work.
“I love it,” Turner said. “This is a great place.”