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East County Friday, Jul. 27, 2018 1 year ago

Side of Ranch: Jay Heater

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Better deals will land in Sarasota
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

If you live in the East County area, you might identify with Laura Lynch’s description of her desire to fly out of Tampa International Airport.

“I hate, hate, hate going to Tampa,” Lynch said before a Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance luncheon that featured guest speaker Rick Piccolo, Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport’s president and CEO.

Lynch is a financial adviser with Edward Jones who has clients in Virginia and Texas. She hopes to expand her reach to other places around the United States and travel in the future is a concern, especially when she needs to drive to Tampa because her local airport doesn’t offer affordable connections to the places where she needs to travel.

She wishes she could pay for an Uber ride to her local airport, and save those expensive parking rates she has to pay in Tampa.

She is no different than you, or I, or all the business people in our area. Last weekend, I flew out of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport for the first time as I headed to San Francisco. Yes, I did pay more (about $80) than I would have by going to Tampa, but my trip was more efficient in terms of time.

Piccolo actually asked those at the luncheon, which was held at Sarasota’s Carlisle Inn, to consider all the costs when considering their trip, such as gas, more expensive parking fees and, perhaps more than anything, time. We all know our time is valuable.

That being said, Americans are shoppers. We’ve never been good at shopping at the local market when the big-box store saves us $12 on every visit. Oh, yeah, we might do it for a while, but in the long run we have books to balance.

So when Piccolo talks about saving 40 minutes or $30 for parking, it falls on deaf ears if we have to take two connections to get somewhere, or if it’s an extra $150 out of our pockets.

Fortunately, Piccolo was passing along some good news at the luncheon. Oh, sure, the airport is doing great. It’s got $24 million in the bank and $222 million in fixed assets. It has no debt, and that’s despite investing $250 million into upgrades the past 15 years. It turns a profit each year.

Blah, blah, blah.

It’s a selfish world, and if I can’t get to Indianapolis without driving to St. Pete-Clearwater International, then I don’t really care.

Perhaps I should.

All those good business practices, combined with the explosion in population in the Sarasota and Manatee counties areas, mean more airlines are taking a serious look at bringing their planes here. Add to it the steady increase in hotel rooms, and perhaps Southwest Airlines would reconsider its move to leave the airport in 2012.

Piccolo told the crowd that in 1983, the airports were negotiating with 21 major airlines in the U.S. and 26 regional carriers. In 2018, those numbers declined to 12 major airlines and 15 regional carriers. That’s less opportunity for an airport to expand.

Here, though, add the airport’s success, updated everything and growing market, and you get interest.

Today, Sarasota has seven airlines (Air Canada, Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Elite Airways, JetBlue Airways and United Airlines) and Piccolo said he expects to have more carriers in the next year.

You can reach 15 cities nonstop out of Sarasota, and that obviously will expand. He said Philadelphia, Detroit, Minneapolis, Buffalo, N.Y., Cleveland, Denver and Columbus, Ohio, have potential.

That’s music to my ears.

Damien O’Riordan, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, can’t wait, either.

“For us, it’s great to have an airport on our doorstep,” he said. “We just need more destinations. Right now, if I can fly out of Sarasota, I will. And having more airlines means it is making Sarasota more accessible.”

O’Riordan explained his hotel often hosts huge groups where those attending come from all over the country. If would be more convenient if those coming to Sarasota could all fly into Sarasota-Bradenton International. As it is, they are being shuttled from St. Pete and Tampa as well.

Most businesses feel the same way. They want the 1,300-acre airport to keep growing.

Even then, some new problems are bound to crop up. Piccolo noted all the local people using the airport tend to get rides from their friends or take Uber or a taxi. That means less revenue from parking, important to the airport’s profit margin.

Piccolo looked into the future and he possibly sees a time when the airport entrance will have a toll plaza.  

Yikes. It’s always something.

— Jay Heater, managing editor

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