Known as the “Gateway to the West Coast of Florida,” Tampa International Airport is among one of the fastest-growing large airports in the Sunshine State, with nearly 90 nonstop domestic and international routes serving approximately 23 million passengers a year. About 10 to 15 percent of those passengers have physical disabilities or limitations and many more have what the airport’s Guest Experience team refers to as “hidden disabilities,” such as autism spectrum disorders or other less visible challenges.

“Airports are places that can be very intimidating and confusing for new visitors, but especially for those who have even the slightest physical, social or emotional limitation,” said Christine Phillips, Senior Manager of Guest Experience at Tampa International. “Our staff is trained to treat guests from all walks of life and abilities with the same warm welcome and friendly assistance once they set foot in the Tampa Bay area, and that includes making special accommodations if needed.”

Tampa’s airport, also known as TPA, regularly consults with local and national ADA groups, particularly before embarking on new construction or expansion projects. In 2013, the Airport made its biggest push to be more accommodating when it hosted the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, which brought approximately 400 wheelchair-assisted athletes through its facilities at once. In recent years, TPA has transitioned from carpeting to smoother tile flooring covering more square footage of each level of the Main Terminal as well as the Airside terminals, created more spacious and accessible restrooms, and has become more service animal-friendly with new pet relief areas at all terminals.

In addition to having 19 Guest Experience employees and more than 100 Volunteer Ambassadors who are specially trained to assist passengers of all abilities, TPA has hundreds of contracted employees who work directly with the airlines to provide wheelchair assistance from curbside check-in to gates (and vice-versa), ensuring a seamless experience between plane and vehicle. Passengers can request assistance at the origin airport’s airline ticket counters prior to departing, though reservations in advance are always recommended.

 Passengers at Tampa International Airport arrive through a boarding bridge gate at one of four Airside terminals connected to the Main Terminal via a shuttle system.

Planning Ahead

The first step in planning a trip to and through Tampa International Airport will start with the airline upon booking. Calling, e-mailing or sending a direct message via the airline’s social media account will be the quickest and easiest way to ensure the arrival process at TPA is smooth, starting with a meeting at the gate by a contracted customer care representative if needed.

With a compact layout designed to reduce walking distances, Tampa International Airport is famously easy to navigate for newcomers and experienced travelers alike. A passenger will arrive through a boarding bridge gate at one of four Airside terminals connected to a main hub, known as the Main Terminal, via a shuttle system. Each ride takes 20 or fewer seconds.

“Honestly, I’ve only had great experiences at Tampa International,” said Chelsea Bear, who was born with cerebral palsy and uses a mobility scooter when moving through airports.

Bear is a frequent traveler who has visited several airports around the country, including all of the large airports in Florida. She said her biggest challenge is typically miscommunication at either the gate when reconnecting with her scooter (which is stored as cargo during flights) and occasionally longer waits at TSA checkpoints.

But the TPA experience itself is typically seamless, including getting on and off shuttles and navigating different levels of the facilities on her scooter.

“I really love the shuttles and how they are super easy for me to roll right on and off,” Bear said. “Sometimes you encounter shuttles or buses where someone on staff has to be there to help lift me on and off, so it’s nice to be able to do everything on my own.”

Journey from Plane to Vehicle

Once inside the Main Terminal, passengers have three options:

  • If passengers need to retrieve checked luggage, they head down to Baggage Claim on Level 1 via elevator or escalator, following signage to Blue or Red side, which will be clearly marked with the coordinating airline names. After retrieving luggage, the outdoor pick-up curbs are less than 20 feet from the baggage carousels.
  • If passengers have carry-on luggage only, they may opt to to TPA's new Express Curbside pickup area, which is a quick elevator or escalator ride from the Main Terminal and avoids the crowds on the Baggage Claim level. The curbs tend to be less busy and a breeze for pick-up vehicles to navigate in and out of TPA’s roadways.
  • If passengers need a rental vehicle, they follow signage to the SkyConnect train system, which takes them on a 4-minute ride to a spacious and easy-to-navigate Rental Car Center. The train comes every two minutes and has seating for those who need it.

Most of the 15 rental car companies that operate at TPA offer vehicles equipped with hand controls with advance notice, and the airport partners with Yellow Cab taxi service, which has a fleet of vehicles with wheelchair lifts upon request. Alora Transportation also picks up passengers with wheelchair lift-equipped vans for more personalized service from TPA to any spot in the Tampa Bay area. The Airport also has contracts with Uber and Lyft, both of which have drivers capable of accommodating all types of disabilities. And the local public bus transit services, HART (Hillsborough Counter/Tampa/Pasco County) and PSTA (Pinellas County), offer routes aboard buses that accommodate wheelchairs and scooters. The commercial bus curb is located on the ground level at the Rental Car Center, easily reached by elevator.

Inside the Airport

Tampa International Airport had one goal in mind when the original airport was designed in the 1960s, and that was to keep walking distances to a minimum, no more than 700 feet from gate to car. The hub-and-spoke layout and shuttle system were considered architectural marvels at the time, and TPA has held strong to its ease-of-use reputation, even as the airport has expanded over the years. In fact, the longest distance from the farthest gate of any Airside terminal to an outside pick-up curb is approximately 370 steps, factoring in the shuttle rides.

That said, there are several stops that may happen along the way, particularly for those with any range of disabilities.

RESTROOMS: TPA has award-winning, spacious restrooms located on each end of every Airside terminal, located in close proximity to all gates, and all have at least one wheelchair-accessible stall. Multiple restrooms are also located on every level of the Main Terminal – Baggage Claim, Ticketing and Transfer Level – as well as inside the Rental Car Center and Economy Parking garage. In certain locations throughout the airport, look for the internationally recognized wheelchair symbol for special companion restrooms, also called family restrooms, for those who need assistance from caregivers.

 TPA delivers pet relief areas at each Airside terminal, complete with grassy turf that is cleaned regularly, a drinking sink, and fake fire hydrant decor.

SERVICE ANIMALS: Recognizing that service dogs also may need relief after a long flight, TPA recently added pet relief areas at each Airside terminal, complete with grassy turf that is cleaned regularly, a drinking sink, and fake fire hydrant decor. There are also well-manicured outdoor relief areas located outside of the Baggage Claim level.

 While TPA does not have designated areas specifically for guests requiring low levels of stimulation, it does have accessible outdoor patios located on the Transfer Level Main Terminal and many spaces that have less traffic and noise.

QUIET SPACES: While TPA does not have designated areas specifically for guests requiring low levels of stimulation, it does have accessible outdoor patios located on the Transfer Level Main Terminal and many spaces that have less traffic and noise, such as the often-empty Event Space between the F and E shuttle lobbies. On the Ticketing Level/Level 2 near the Southwest ticket counter, there are sliding doors leading to a quiet landscaped terrace that few frequent among the hustle of the traveling public.

VISION OR HEARING IMPAIRMENT: Wayfinding signage and clear PA messaging along the TPA journey is designed to also help those who are blind or hard of hearing, though vision-impaired travelers who need special assistance should let the airline know to have a sighted guide at the gate to help them get where they need to go. Even the airport’s famous giant flamingo statue has special ADA bumpers around the stooping beak and feet for those with walking canes. TTY and TDD telephones for deaf passengers are located in each of the Airside and Main terminals, marked with the international symbol for TTY/TDD.

The Return Trip

Passengers returning to TPA for their flights home tend to spend a much longer time in the airport, often making many stops before reaching their gate. Those returning rental vehicles enjoy using the TPA Rental Car Center’s convenient remote bag check, where they can drop off their luggage and print boarding passes before hopping or rolling aboard the SkyConnect train and navigating the rest of the journey to the gate.

People who will need special accommodations at the TSA screening checkpoint should contact TSA Cares at least 72 hours in advance if possible. And for those with invisible disabilities such as autism spectrum disorders, chronic pain or mental illnesses, Tampa International Airport is one of the first airports in the country to incorporate the Sunflower Lanyard Program into its Guest Experience protocols. Passengers may request a lanyard or stickers at the Information Desk near the Starbucks in the middle of the Main Terminal, and the sunflower symbol helps airline, TSA, and other airport staff recognize they have a guest who may need a different level of care or service.

“We have handed out hundreds of lanyards since beginning the program last year, and it’s very helpful for not only our passengers with hidden or invisible disabilities, but for our employees to know when they are assisting someone who may need a little more care or patience,” Phillips said. “We hold training with frontline workers every month, particularly when we have new employees at TPA. We want every guest to have the best and most stress-free experience so they’ll return to see us again.”

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