Rick Piccolo started as a janitor at what is now the Buffalo Niagara International Airport 45 years ago. Since then, his career has soared. He was hired as CEO of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport in 1995.
Its terminal was 6 years old, and the airport owed $115 million of the $150 million in debt incurred during renovations.
In August 2014, SRQ made its last payment on that debt, becoming one of just a handful of debt-free airports in the country. And that could allow the airport to reach new heights, as well.
Approximately four years ago, just before SRQ paid off its debt, it began focusing on renewed infrastructure, planning for $30 million in ongoing capital projects – including a new air traffic control tower, improvements and renovations to the airport entrances designed to increase traffic flow, and even LED lighting to cut power usage by approximately 40%. Piccolo says these will allow the airport to continue providing a boutique experience to its customers.
The airport, which has an annual operating budget of approximately $20 million, now has $26 million in reserves. SRQ’s traffic is up approximately 2% in 2015 through November, the last month for which figures were available, and Piccolo believes growth will continue.
“I predict the airport’s passenger traffic will grow 3% to 5% in 2016, and that it will add another airline, or at least one more destination,” Piccolo said.
The benefits of more service to more destinations are obvious for airport customers, but even people who don’t fly often will feel the effects.
In the short term, he said, the airport’s capital projects provide construction jobs. More activity also means more flights and more tourism.
“I think it really goes both ways,” Piccolo said. “The airport is really a reflection of economic activity in the community.”
The growth comes in spite of the airport’s loss of AirTran, which made up 28% of the airport’s traffic, following its merger with Southwest in 2012. The next year, additional passenger traffic from United and Delta helped offset the loss, although 2013 traffic was still down.
As of November 2015, SRQ had already seen 1.21 million passengers in the calendar year — up from 1.13 million in 2013.
Piccolo said the airport will also continue to add property so it can develop revenue that doesn’t depend on passenger traffic. In fact, he said, that is the reason SRQ was able to survive the loss of AirTran.
In 1995, the year Piccolo was hired, the airport collected approximately $200,000 in revenue unrelated to its airport operations. It now collects $1.5 million annually.
Piccolo envisions partnering with a business that needs immediate access to air transport, such as a shipping facility, to occupy part of the airfield.
Piccolo said the airport will also focus on attracting international carriers with some improvements, such as an expanded customs facility.
“It’s more difficult to attract an international carrier than a domestic carrier,” Piccolo said. “When you look at the amount of European tourists in Florida – there’s a lot of demand. How do we tap into that?”
Overall, he said, the airport is positioned well financially and strategically.
“We’re going to continue to grow,” he said. “When you look at all the building blocks of the business, things are all pointed in the right direction.”