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During phase one, Sunshine Airlines will offer direct flights to eight destinations in the U.S.
Longboat Key Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012 2 years ago

Couple proposes Sarasota-based airline

by: Kurt Schultheis Managing Editor

In June, Sarasota-Bradenton International (SRQ) Airport President Fred Piccolo announced a new marketing campaign called “Do You SRQ?” urging residents and businesses to take a pledge to use their local airport.

Longboat Key residents Steve and Hannah Miller are taking that pledge to another level.

The Millers, who have more than 60 years combined in the aviation business, are in the concept stage of bringing an SRQ-based airline to the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport called Sunrise Airlines of Sarasota. The move, they say, would jumpstart the local economy and get residents flying locally for competitive fares while using direct flights.

The Millers moved in February to Sarasota from Hong Kong and then moved to Longboat Key permanently in June.

“Steve couldn’t stay retired for more than two months,” Hannah Miller said.

The couple, who moved to the United States upon retirement to be closer to family, chose Sarasota over Boca Raton after friends and family urged them to check out the Gulf Coast before making a decision.

The only problem was the Millers arrived through Tampa International Airport and had no idea the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport existed until they were living here for a couple of months.

Steve Miller — who started a Hong Kong-based airline called Dragonair in the mid-1980s, now owns 31 jets flying to 25 destinations within Asia. He also formed another airline there in 2004, called Oasis, that ceased operations in 2008. He said thoughts of a Sarasota-based airline immediately popped into his head when he visited the local airport.

“Even when traveling at the Tampa airport, it’s almost impossible to get a direct flight,” Steve Miller said. “My aviation instincts were aroused immediately, and a local airline with direct flights and competitive fares would work here.”

Steve Miller, 73, said Sarasota residents and visitors “have endured inferior air connections for too long.”

“I can smell out where there’s an opportunity and put it into practice,” Steve Miller said. “I have found out there really is a need for a local airline here.”

Miller proposes that an airline utilizing Boeing 737-400 planes, with a home base at SRQ that offers 24 non-stop destinations in the U.S. and Canada, will work and could be up and running within 12 months.

In the first year of operation, the airline could handle eight non-stop flights with four aircraft; it would add eight additional flights and four more aircraft in the second year; and add eight more flights and three more aircraft in its third year of operation. All of these flights, Steve Miller said, would have fares that are competitive with Tampa International Airport’s rates.

Plans for international flights and Florida flights would follow.

In an Oct. 17 email to Vice Mayor David Brenner, Piccolo told Brenner “an SRQ-based airline is feasible with the right plan and financial backing.”

“The airport has been in extensive discussions with an individual over the last six to eight months about their plan for a Sarasota-based carrier,” Piccolo said. “He has extensive airline knowledge, and we are assisting wherever we can.”

The Millers have begun to make presentations about the airline in the area.

A Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport study shows that 3.75 million passengers per year could be handled at the airport and numbers have fallen because of passenger leakage to Tampa and Fort Myers.

“Passenger numbers should be three times what it was in 2011 and a local airline would help tremendously,” Steve Miller said.

Sunrise Airlines, Steve Miller said, is evaluating high-volume destinations and destinations that AirTran used to utilize before it left the airport earlier this year.

“We believe this sort of market would prefer one competitive price on an airline dedicated to this market and one that could create local jobs for this market,” said Steve Miller, who explained such an airline could create 400 local jobs that would be a combination of flying, ground operations and office staff.

“This is my husband’s response to ‘Do You SRQ?” Hannah Miller said. “We need the community’s support, and we think this is an airline that would benefit the whole community.”

Steve Miller agreed.

“My experience has always been in startup airlines,” Steve Miller said. “I want to do my part to stimulate jobs in this economy.”


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