The Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport needs more gates, and it needs them yesterday.
More passenger capacity is coming, but it won’t be available until 2024. In airport expansion terms, that’s supersonic speed.
Already one of the nation’s fastest-growing airports in terms of passenger count prior to 2020, pandemic-fueled interest in visiting and relocating to the Sarasota-Bradenton area has brought explosive passenger growth year over year to SRQ as more airlines and more flights pack the airport’s 13 gates served by a single concourse.
With an eye toward growth and the need to better serve current customers, the airport will by fall embark on a $72 million design-build project to add a ground-based boarding facility capable of serving upwards of 2.5 million passengers a year through five new gates. Combined with the current 13 gates, SRQ’s capacity will be about 5 million annual travelers.
If that number sounds outlandish, consider the airport in 2021 had more than 3.1 million passengers, 1.2 million more than in 2019.
“We're growing so fast we need more gates, and the fastest way to do that is ground-based because you don't have to build air bridges and you don't have to go two stories,” said SRQ President and CEO Rick Piccolo. “It's also not as expensive. We're looking for fast and cost-effective, while at the same time making sure that we have something that looks as nice as the rest of the airport.”
Ground-based boarding brings passengers directly outside to the tarmac, where they board and disembark aircraft via portable ramps or stairs, similar to operations at Punta Gorda and St. Pete-Clearwater International airports.
The new facility will be labeled Concourse A, and the existing facility Concourse B. The expansion will include four dedicated TSA lines. SRQ currently has five TSA checkpoints for Concourse B with room — and the need — for one more.
“We're asking for a sixth piece of equipment,” Piccolo said. “All of the pre-work is done, so TSA could drop a machine in there within two days.”
The new boarding area will be built behind the current airline ticketing area. While that is being built, the Sarasota Bradenton Airport Authority is already planning for the next expansion — an elevated concourse to connect the two, designed to include four more traditional gates and an 11th TSA checkpoint with it.
There is no timetable set for that project, but when it does happen Piccolo said SRQ will will have a capacity of about 7 million passengers a year.
Maintaining the momentum
Now that the Sarasota-Bradenton area has captured the attention of the traveling public, expanding capacity at SRQ is vital, Piccolo said, to maintaining that momentum. Airlines want to bring more flights, and gate capacity is crucial to scheduling.
Currently, there is little flexibility.
“Let's say we do at least 3.5 million passengers this year. You can stuff 4 million people into Terminal B, but that pretty much puts a cap on things and airlines won't be able to add more service,” Piccolo said. “Then the issue for the airlines is it becomes too difficult from the standpoint of one day the gate is available, then there's a weather incident and the next day the gate isn't available. They don't have enough certainty to keep that service.
“You can lose service, and we want to make sure that we not only prepare for what we have now, but for future growth. Also, we’ve prided ourselves over the years with the level of service and the convenience of the airport and we want to maintain that.”
Pre-pandemic passenger growth at SRQ is largely credited to the arrival of Allegiant in 2018, which contributed to a 44% increase in 2019. That made it the fastest-growing airport, percentage-wise, in the country. The first three months of 2020 brought 43% growth year-over-year, before the airlines all but shut down at the onset of COVID-19. By the end of the year, SRQ was one of the least-impacted airports in the country.
“In 2020 while other airports were down, 50%, 60% or 70%, we were down 33%, so we were recovering faster than anyone,” Piccolo said.
In 2021, passenger count was also 70% higher than the airport’s pre-pandemic levels when it was already the fastest-growing in the country. The 2021 growth was in part fueled by the launch of service by Southwest Airlines in February.
The momentum is showing no sign of slowing down. So far in 2022, passengers are up another 71% over last year.
“I think we could do a little bit more with what we currently have,” Piccolo said. “Part of that depends on the airlines because they are continuing to expand here and voicing that they want to do more service here.”
Parking is next
More passengers, though, bring another set of challenges in and around the terminal. Prior to construction of Concourse A, SRQ is already short on concessions, parking and car rental service capacity.
The expansion project includes building “bump-outs” in Concourse B to accommodate more concessions. Passengers now have few options — suitable for 1.5 million passengers but not 3.5 million — past the security checkpoint. There are two full-service dining establishments, Gulf Breeze and Kona Bar, along with a Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, a grab-and-go kiosk and a news shop that also offers grab-and-go items.
“We need more space just to serve the customers we have and give them a more pleasant experience,” Piccolo said. “We need more seating areas for departures, and concessions are a real challenge right now because we just don't have enough space.”
Or enough parking.
At 2,100 spaces in a surface lot, SRQ parked 4,500 cars per day during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays last year. In addition to operating a temporary remote lot, the airport used auxiliary tarmac space to park 500 cars behind a temporary security fence.
That isn’t an option this year. That area is the construction site for Concourse A.
Design work is underway for a permanent 1,400-space remote parking lot, a project that will help the airport to address yet another growth challenge, car rental service. On the drawing board is a $30 million “quick-turnaround” facility, which will be paid for by car rental agencies. The binary solution to ground transportation problems will also take about two years to complete.
The airport expansion project will be funded in part by federal grants of $4.6 million per year for each of the next five years. SRQ is an independent special district governed by a six-member authority made up of three each from Sarasota and Manatee counties, Authority members are appointed by the Governor’s office.