Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport has experienced some turbulence in the past, but its chief executive sees clear skies ahead.
In the midst of a period of growth, Rick Piccolo is proud to say Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport has already completed nearly all the major capital projects the facility will need for the foreseeable future.
Still, the airport president and CEO divulged there’s at least one task left to do before winter: refurbishing the ticket counter, adding new conveyer belts to service areas that had long been vacant.
That might seem like a minor undertaking compared to SRQ’s investment of more than $30 million into terminal upgrades over the past five years. But, with airlines including Allegiant, Frontier and American announcing nine new direct flights from Sarasota in 2018, it speaks to the new challenges an increasingly popular airport is facing.
“We’re adjusting to the growth, the quick growth,” Piccolo said. “It’s not just an incremental 5-10%. Over the past three or four months, we’ve had 16-30% traffic increases. In season, we expect to be up somewhere in the 40% range.”
Piccolo, who has worked at SRQ for more than two decades, has firsthand experience with leaner times at the airport.
The late 1990s and early 2000s brought budget woes as the number of passengers declined. After a period of recovery, SRQ lost AirTran in 2012, then its second-largest carrier. Piccolo spoke to the challenges airport employees have faced as officials reduced staffing levels by 10% during his tenure.
There were larger structural issues to tackle. Sarasota had a reputation as a seasonal destination. SRQ had a reputation as a pricey alternative to other airports in the region.
Now, Piccolo sees all that changing. And while he acknowledged the business inherently comes with ups and downs, he thinks the airport is in the process of establishing a new baseline for the amount of activity that’s to be expected.
So, what changed? Piccolo couldn’t single out just one thing. Sarasota is going through a period of growth, including in the hotel industry. The airport is in a good place financially, which makes airlines more comfortable moving in. SRQ has an aggressive incentive program for carriers launching new routes. Sarasota and Manatee county tourism bureaus are effectively working as partners on marketing efforts.
“You combine all those factors, and it finally starts to pay off,” Piccolo said.
One of the leading harbingers of change came on Jan. 9, when Allegiant announced it would begin flying from Sarasota to Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.
The news was significant for a variety of reasons. Allegiant is an ultra-low-cost carrier, the type of budget airline SRQ previously failed to attract. Because customers had criticized the airport for its expensive flights, landing an airline that offered fares as low as $48 was exciting.
Allegiant began flying out of SRQ in April. It was unusual for the airport. Typically, airlines wanted to launch their flights to coincide with the peak tourist season, maximizing the traffic for a new route. Piccolo saw Allegiant’s decision as a vote of confidence in Sarasota as a year-round destination. He said it paid off, too, with the airline seeing somewhere around 90% of its seats sold for late spring and summer flights.
“That showed there’s a pent-up demand to come to this community and use services directly out of this airport,” Piccolo said.
On multiple levels, it was a sign of things to come. United kept offering service to Chicago and Newark through the summer. Frontier, another ultra-low-cost-carrier, announced flights to Atlanta, Cleveland and Philadelphia. For good measure, American Airlines launched flights to Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago and Philadelphia.
Piccolo traces all of that back to Allegiant’s decision.
“It started to build on its own critical mass and momentum,” Piccolo said. “Now, we’re getting more tire-kicking from the airlines, because they’re seeing the value system here.”
Kristen Schilling-Gonzales, Allegiant’s managing director of planning, said SRQ has made operating out of the airport enticing for airlines.
“They’ve kept the costs low and they’ve lowered the barriers to entry,” Gonzales said.
“We’re getting more tire-kicking from the airlines, because they’re seeing the value system here.” — Rick Piccolo
Piccolo said the airport has been able to do that because of good fiscal management. Even as it remodeled the terminal, the airport has paid off its debts, operating with an annual budget surplus. In the most recent budget, the airport reduced its costs by about $1.60 per passenger — savings that can add up quickly for an airline.
SRQ gives airlines the opportunity to fly new routes for free for two years. The airport has a $750,000 promotional budget, with local tourism bureaus committing as much as $125,000 to advertise in new destination cities. Visit Sarasota President and CEO Virginia Haley said the addition of direct routes is a major asset for luring visitors, eliminating difficulties associated with travel to the area.
The low-cost flights, in particular, help change the landscape of Sarasota tourism.
“Even people who have a fairly high household income, one of the complaints we would always hear was the expense of the flights into SRQ,” Haley said. “Now, you’ve got an option that’s less expensive — and gives you more money to spend while you’re in Sarasota, so we like that.”
Piccolo said there’s still ample room for more growth. SRQ employees (and passengers) may have to prepare themselves to handle longer lines, but the airport itself is well equipped for the traffic.
“We could double our capacity here before we’d have to add any facilities,” Piccolo said. “(Airlines) don’t have to worry about some cost spike happening because we added service and have to build whole new facilities.”
The growth the airport is experiencing has to slow down sometime, but Piccolo doesn’t think that’s imminent. There are still some goals SRQ hopes to achieve, including adding overseas international service.
Operating without direct taxpayer funds, SRQ is also focusing on opportunities for non-commercial growth. The recent relocation of its air traffic control tower allowed the airport to market 92 acres for industrial aviation development opportunities.
SRQ’s primary focus remains its commercial air service, though. And, for the first time in years, airport officials are happy to focus on a new task: offering the same level of convenience while moving many more passengers through the gates.
“Since we’ve seen this explosive growth, we have spent a lot of time discussing — how do we make sure we maintain the kind of ambiance and experience we want our customer to have?” Piccolo said. “I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge.”