By Janet K. Keeler
Tampa Bay, the easy way. If that sounds like a solid catchphrase for a regional airport with all non-stop flights, it’s because it is.
St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport boasts convenient parking lots in front of the terminal and is almost exclusively a gateway to cities that often require a layover from bigger airports. Plus, it is centrally located near major highways and bridges across Tampa Bay that lead to Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg in addition to some of the prettiest beaches in the state.
PIE — that’s its official three-letter airport code — flies nonstop to about 60 cities. From Traverse City, Michigan, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Provo, Utah, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, travelers can easily access the vacation hotspots of Florida’s west coast or get back home for a birthday, wedding or graduation.
That must be what people were doing in 2022 when PIE experienced record passenger traffic. Nearly 2.5 million passengers used PIE that year, up nearly 22 percent from 2021. Some of that increased travel was a bounce back from the pandemic and pent-up travel demand, but even now passenger numbers continue to climb.
Among those travelers are people with various disabilities, including mobility, hearing and vision issues. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, about 25 million Americans have travel-limiting disabilities.
The addition of services, accommodations and flights helps attract new travelers while keeping PIE regulars satisfied.
Michele Routh, airport public relations director, said that the ease of travel from PIE can become addicting. After all, who wants the hassle of multiple terminals, crowded trams, long distances from parking to check-in, and then winding lines through security? Nobody, if there’s a simpler way.
Allegiant is the primary carrier at PIE with Sun Country flying to Minneapolis-St. Paul and Swoop to Hamilton, Ontario.
A Nod to Local
The city of St. Petersburg prides itself in its local art, food and craft brew scene. The ever-growing number of independent breweries in the Tampa Bay area has earned the region the nickname “The Gulp Coast.”
That love affair with local is on display at PIE. St. Petersburg muralists Leo Gomez and Laura “Miss Crit” Spencer have painted the walls near Gate 12 to welcome travelers. They are visible only past security. Gomez created a sunset interpretation of PIE’s “Go Easy” mantra and Spencer’s mural is of vibrant Florida flowers and underwater views.
Another local artist, Ashley Cantero, is working on a mural that all visitors can see because it’s before the security checkpoints. Gomez, Spencer and Cantero have been featured artists in St. Petersburg’s annual SHINE mural festival. Maybe something else to put on the to-do visit: A tour of the dozens of murals painted on mostly businesses since SHINE began in 2015.
Besides local art, 3 Daughters Brewing, one of the first breweries in St. Pete, has an outlet — post security clearance — where folks leaving or arriving from gates 2 through 6, can buy a taste of Beach Blonde Ale or Florida Orange IPA.
Travelers leaving or arriving at gates 7 through 11, can browse Mazzaro’s Italian Market once they move through security. This outpost of a favorite local Italian deli and market is the place to get sandwiches, flatbreads, speciality coffees and wine. The main market in St. Petersburg has become something of a tourist attraction and might also end up on a traveler’s must-see list.
For travelers with disabilities, it’s helpful to know that PIE is on one level so there’s no need to worry about escalators or elevators. There are two TSA security checkpoints, one for gates 2-6 and the other for 7-11. Gate 1 is for arrivals only.
Also on the ground floor are check-in, ticketing, baggage claim, car rental desks plus taxis, limos, public buses and parking shuttle services. There is a designated spot for rideshare drop off and pick up.
There is a covered jet bridge for Gates 4 and 6 but at other gates, passengers leave the terminal and board the planes from outside, negotiating a wide accessible ramp to embark. Disembarking is the same. Airlines personnel can assist passengers using wheelchairs. Obviously, if there is lightning and heavy rain, boarding is delayed.
As with all U.S. airports, the responsibilities of the operation are carried out by different entities. Airport administration is tasked with operating the facility — infrastructure, amenities and more. The federal Transportation Safety Administration is in charge of security. The airlines themselves — and this is important for people with special needs — provide wheelchair transport from curb to seat.
Because it’s the airlines duty to provide someone to assist customers who use wheelchairs, many travel experts suggest that travelers who need accommodations book flights directly through the airlines rather than a third party like Expedia or Travelocity. A third-party vendor can be used, but the airline will still need to be contacted. The airlines can also provide a sighted guide for someone with vision impairment. A travel agent can also help in booking flights and requesting assistance.
PIE does not have skycaps or valets to help with wheelchair transportation. This makes it doubly important that travelers request help from the airlines when they book or have a companion that can assist them. The airline can arrange for a gate pass if the companion is not traveling. A sheriff’s deputy or traffic assistant at curbside can help in contacting the airlines to let them know a passenger with special needs has arrived.
Since Allegiant is PIE’s primary airline, it’s a good idea to check out the information for accessibility accommodations on its website. The site has extensive guidelines about traveling with a trained service dog. Allegiant requests that paperwork and notification be completed no later than 48 hours before scheduled departure.
While it’s smart to arrange with the airlines for wheelchair transport, some folks arrive at the airport without doing this. If so, they can call (727) 586-2811. This is also the number to call to let the airlines know that you’ve arrived at the curbside or are inside the airport and need your pre-arranged transport. The options on the recorded message can be a bit confusing but stay on the line to talk to a person.
No earlier than 72 hours of departure, a traveler can contact TSA Cares — toll-free (855) 787-2227 — to request assistance. A TSA passenger support representative can answer questions about security procedures. They should also be alerted to passengers traveling with a service animal or medical equipment such as oxygen. Travelers with vision and hearing impairments may also need special assistance and the live representative can provide pertinent information.
There are several paid parking options at PIE and they are at ground level. The closest parking is the short-term Manatee lot directly across from the terminal. When customers enter the terminal from this lot, they will be near baggage claim.
Long-term parking (Dolphin and Turtle lots) is just south of short-term parking. There are specially designated ADA parking spaces between the short-term and long-term lots.
Neither short-term or long-term parking areas have shuttle service.
Passengers with mobility issues, including those who may have difficulty walking with luggage, are encouraged to park in the Key Lime economy lot. There is a free shuttle to the terminal. The economy lot is across busy Roosevelt Boulevard so it’s best for everyone who uses it to take the shuttle. There is another economy lot — Strawberry — nearby and it is used when needed, mostly around holidays when air travel peaks.
Shuttles average about 10 to 20 minutes between pickups. Some of this depends on traffic outside the airport and road construction which in recent years has been frequent.
PIE’s parking map has more information including prices.
From Plane to Vehicle
Once passengers have deplaned, there are several ways to leave the airport and get on their way.
- If passengers need to retrieve checked luggage, they will follow the signs to the four baggage carousels at the west end of the terminal. The outer concourse is the only way to reach baggage claim whether walking or using a wheelchair. Airport personnel will assist those in wheelchairs. PIE does not have skycaps.
- If passengers have carry-on luggage only, they can either head toward the exits in front of the two gate areas toward the parking lots or the curb for private pickup. Parking lot shuttles stop near Ticketing B and at the west-end exit. Ground transportation, including taxis, car rentals and ride share services are near baggage claim. There is no curb parking at PIE. People picking up passengers can wait in the cell phone lot at the south end of the airport property until the plane arrives. (There is no pedestrian walkway from the cell phone lot.)
- If passengers need to rent a vehicle, Alamo, National, Avis, Budget and Enterprise have on-site counters just opposite the baggage claim.
Inside the Airport
Restrooms: There are five bathrooms with handicap accessibility at PIE. Two are located pre-security checkpoints, one near the exit at baggage claims and the other just before the checkpoint at ticketing. Two more are located post-security near the gates. A fifth is near customs by the international baggage claim.
Service animals: Passengers traveling with trained service dogs should let the airlines know this when making reservations. In accordance with ADA regulations, trained service dogs fly for free. Passengers will pay fees for emotional support animals and pets. There are two fenced Pet Relief Areas on either side of the short-term parking lot. The westside relief area is closest to the car rentals. The relief areas have artificial antimicrobial turf. There are benches plus hydration stations, dog waste bags and disposable receptacles. The areas are drained and cleaned regularly but pet-owners are expected to clean up after their dogs.
Vision impairment: PIE has an account with AIRA, a live, virtual interpreting service. The service allows passengers with vision impairment to hold their smartphone camera toward what’s ahead of them and a person will describe the scene live. Passengers have to sign up and have the app though the service is free at PIE when using their minutes.
Travelers with special needs who travel frequently know that they should give themselves plenty of time to check in and get to their gate. Budget at least two hours, even at a smaller airport like PIE, depending on transportation and if you need to spend time with a service animal in the relief area.
Travelers returning to St. Pete-Clearwater will have a better idea of the airport’s layout. Communicating with TSA Cares within 72 hours before departure can make the security check process quicker and more smooth. The agents there will know you might need assistance because of a wheelchair or service animal, or hearing and vision issues.
If you find yourself at PIE with too much time on your hands, check out the craft brews at 3 Daughters or get yourself a caprese sandwich on housemade bread at Mazzaro’s.
For more information about visiting St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, visit: https://fly2pie.com/
Want to know where to go once you land at St. Petersburg-Clearwater? Visit: https://www.visitstpeteclearwater.com/