Tampa International Airport has been the welcoming hub for countless visiting sports teams and athletes over the years. It has also mastered the art of accessibility for passengers with special needs and disabilities as they arrive into Tampa to navigate an unfamiliar airport.
This Friday, July 12th, TIA will have the opportunity to exercise both strengths as more than 600 athletes from around the world come to compete in the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games, held at various sites throughout Tampa on July 13-18.
Around 400 athletes are expected to arrive at TIA Friday, with some flights bringing up to 25 athletes, plus their coaches, friends and family members, and some service animals. And along with their personal chairs, many athletes will be checking three to four competition wheelchairs, as well as other specialty devices and equipment.
The arrivals require getting dozens of athletes off planes and into their personal chairs, as well as transferring competition wheelchairs and other equipment directly from airplanes to hotels.
The event is a first for Tampa, and it’s expected to draw the most participants in the Games’ history. The logistics of making sure the athletes’ airport arrivals and departures run smoothly have been 10 months in the making.
“When we called the airport back in May 2012 and told them this was coming, they said, “Great, okay, let’s start meeting in September,’” said Judy Berglund, a business implementation manager for the U.S. Department of Veterans, who is also on airport planning committee for the Games.
“They really took the ball and ran with it. ”Bruce Sather, Manager of Security and Administration, has been overseeing the airport operational plan, which will involve representatives from the airlines, TSA, Tampa Fire Rescue paramedics, wheelchair repair staff, UPS (for transferring chairs and baggage to the hotels) and numerous volunteers.
The airport planning committee held a “lift team” training session at TIA last month, with several veterans in wheelchairs participating to help simulate proper lifting techniques. The final operational planning meeting was held Monday to talk through last-minute issues such as baggage transfers and how to get athletes to their personal chairs as quickly as possible.
“When you’re talking three or four passengers in wheelchairs on one flight, it’s no big deal,” Sather said. “But hundreds of passengers in wheelchairs arriving in one day … That’s something we’ve not experienced yet at this airport. But we’re up for it and it is time that we put our operational plan into action.”
TIA will actually see its first group of athletes arrive on Thursday when the Games’ British team arrives on British Airways. That will give the staff and volunteers a chance to do a small trial run before the real deal on Friday, Sather said.
Friday will begin with the Incident Command Center and hospitality area opening early in the morning, and every flight arriving with athletes will be communicated via phone and handheld radios to a waiting network of employees and volunteers. The day will involve a lot of collaboration and hard work, but if handled right, the athletes won’t notice.
All TIA employees and tenants are invited to welcome the athletes as they arrive into the main terminal, where entertainment is planned throughout the day, thanks to the work of Events Manager Maria Cook. The Plant High School Band will perform between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and two Gasparilla Krewes and a kindergarten class from General Schwartzkopf Elementary School will also be greeting the athletes.
The Games, held at the Tampa Convention Center and other locations, will be free and open to the public. For a detailed event schedule, visit the national website at www.wheelchairgames.va.gov.
“After nearly a year of planning,” Sather said, “I, for one, am excited about getting out to the Games and seeing these athletes in action.”
[Photos courtesy of the Paralyzed Veterans of America.]