Officials at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, which is one the fastest growing airports in the world, say they are prepared for record traffic during the Christmas period.
The past several months have been record-setting in terms of passenger count for the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.
That has shown no sign of slowing down as the number of visitors continue to climb. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, the airport used temporary parking and pulled staff from other areas to handle the overflow crowd. Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport CEO Rick Piccolo said his crew is ready for another rush over Christmas.
“We were 150 percent over last year and 75-80 percent above where we were with traffic prior to the pandemic,” Piccolo said. “We started taking a look at things and saw that we had 2,100 paved parking spaces.”
Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport now has 11 airlines serving 53 destinations. Southwest Airlines, which started service to the airport in February, accounts for 100,000 passengers a month and has surpassed Delta and Allegiant as the airport’s top carrier. Southwest Airlines has three gates and offers 19 direct destinations out of Sarasota.
In October, Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport saw 275,359 passengers come through its gates — up from 110,883 in October 2020 and 160,327 in October 2019. Through October the airport handled 2,494,632 passengers for all of 2021. November’s numbers were not yet available.
With the growth that's made SRQ one of the fastest growing airports in the world, Piccolo said four months ago the airport began analyzing what it might need. The airport had 1.9 million passengers in 2019 and it projected its parking lots would be full for the five-day rush at Thanksgiving. The study showed it needed 1,500-1,600 more parking spaces.
To handle the onslaught, a temporary lot was opened on the ramp where planes usually taxi toward the south end of the main runway. That lot has 408 spots.
The airport also opened more parking by transforming an old storage lot into parking along with using some grassy area on the corner of University Parkway and Old U.S. 301 on the southeast side of the airport. Six more shuttle buses served the temporary parking.
Piccolo’s overflow plan began to take shape on the Monday before Thanksgiving. When all of the short and long-term lots filled they started using the temporary lots. That also meant using staff from other areas of the airport to help out.
“It actually functioned very well, because it was kind of like being at Disney,” Piccolo said. “We had people leading people to the spaces so that it wasn't haphazard. We had four or five shuttles running simultaneously with our employees. So we had two, three or four shuttles lined up at a time in those temporary lots. As soon as you parked your car, we could fill a shuttle within a couple minutes and get you into the terminal.”
Most of the staff that helped came from the airport’s operations department. Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport Operations Director Lionel Guilbert said the airport planned for that and it did not affect any maintenance or operations issues.
“We were ready,” he said.
Parking reached its peak of 3,547 cars on Thanksgiving. Piccolo said the airport is expecting approximately 3,300 cars over the Christmas holiday, but that number could change due to the fact that airlines have added six new flights in December alone.
“Thanksgiving is probably the most challenging time, then Christmas and then the March spring break time,” Piccolo said. “Christmas tends to be spaced out a little bit more because people might leave for the Christmas holiday, then come back and others leave for the New Year's holiday. We could end up in the same range that we had at Thanksgiving, but we should be in good shape.”
Piccolo said the airport could find itself in a different situation next year around the holidays. Plans are in place to build a new terminal wing that would add gates but eliminate the space for the temporary lot on the ramp. The airport owns property along U.S. 41 on the west side of the airport that could be turned into remote economy parking lots.
“We are working on alternative plans where we have to find up to 1,400 parking spaces somewhere else,” Piccolo said. “We would establish these as economy lots for the whole year, have our shuttle system so that it offers a product to the people year round. It's a little longer haul, but at a reduced rate for parking. Then when the rush comes, we'll have adequate space.”
The airport has plans to eventually build a multi-story parking structure on airport grounds. Before that can be done the airport’s rental car service facility will need to be consolidated and moved and the rest of the temporary lots would need to become permanent lots.
Piccolo said the main problem with building a parking garage now would be the loss of more than 700 spots during construction. He estimated a parking structure is at least a couple of years away from becoming a reality.
“We’d have cars line up on University Parkway if we tried building now,” Piccolo said. “We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve and I think we’re handling this situation very well. Once we get these temporary lots built, we can endeavor to build some sort of parking structure that's elevated and goes vertical, so that then we can solve the problem longer term. But right now, any longer term self parking only creates a short-term catastrophe, and we can’t have that.”
Piccolo said he was very pleased with the feedback the airport received from employees and passengers after Thanksgiving. He stressed that patience will be key for passengers during the busy final weeks of 2021.
“We’re doing everything we can to maintain the level of convenience and cleanliness that we've been known for,” he said. “I think the preparations we made for the holidays paid off very well and made it very convenient for people. We’re working hard to take care of things from an operational standpoint, and then it takes time to build the facilities that we need to build. Take a couple of years, try to tell people to imagine that your vehicle traffic went up 150% a year. No matter how much money the government gave you to build roads, you just wouldn't be able to build it fast enough. We need more infrastructure for parking and concessions, security screening and gates. And that's going to take a couple years to solve. I think we’ve handled it pretty well and are moving people as fast as we can.”
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