Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport President Fred Piccolo told both the Sarasota and Manatee commissions Tuesday “the sky is far from falling” at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.
In February, AirTran, which is now owned by Southwest Airlines, announced it would halt service to the airport, which in turn upset surprised airport officials.
But Piccolo said the decision, although disruptive, is far from a deathblow to the airport.
Piccolo informed commissioners at the joint county meeting that the airport, which acts as an independent airport authority employing roughly 125 people with zero funding from taxpayers, has $28 million in reserves, $100 million in fixed assets and is on schedule to pay off all of its remaining $9 million debt in 2014.
“From a financial standpoint, the airport is in very good shape,” Piccolo said. “We are set to become one of the only airports in this country to be totally debt free.”
Last year, Piccolo said, the airport raked in a surplus of more than $1 million.
Said Piccolo: “We have invested more than $100 million in the airport over the last 10 years without borrowing a dime.”
A study by the Florida Department of Transportation, Piccolo said, revealed that the airport has close to a
$1 billion-a-year economic impact for the region “without taking a penny out of taxpayers’ pockets.”
Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash said he was “thrilled” with the airport’s ability to pay off its remaining debt within a couple of years.
Piccolo also noted that although Continental Airlines is gone and AirTran is leaving later this year, they are still obligated to pay the airport for remaining years of service at the airport they chose not to fulfill.
“Continental pays us $700,000 a year not to be here, and Southwest (AirTran) will pay us $500,000 not to be here,” Piccolo said.
But Piccolo said he won’t dwell on the departure of carriers, noting that United Airlines will initiate daily service between Sarasota and Chicago O’Hare International Airport effective Nov. 4.
Piccolo also said the airport would announce next week another carrier that will offer service from SRQ to La Guardia International Airport.
“We are also hopeful United will add a second Chicago flight this winter and will add service to Newark, as well,” Piccolo said.
Piccolo said travelers aren’t saving money by taking flights that are an average of $30 cheaper out of Tampa International Airport.
Piccolo said he understands the price difference and that most flights out of Sarasota require one stop.
“But connections take no more than an hour,” Piccolo said. “And if you go to Tampa, you spend an hour on the road each way, plus you spend the gas money to get there and back.”
“We realize we can’t meet your needs all the time,” he said. “But we’re close and convenient like a 7-Eleven, and the community must check us out and try to use us as much as possible.”
McClash said he’s saved hundreds of dollars by flying out of the local airport.
“Flights are starting to become cheaper, parking is better and cheaper and I’m saving gas money,” McClash said.
Piccolo, meanwhile, couldn’t resist a jab at Southwest Airlines for their abrupt decision to cancel service, earlier this year. He urged everyone to support the carriers that use the local airport, even if they choose to fly out of Tampa instead.
“Am I asking you not to use Southwest and AirTran?” Piccolo said. “You’re damn right I am.”
If local flyers boycott the airline, Piccolo said, it could force the company to bring its service back to the airport.