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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 4, 2019 5 months ago

Airport poised for more growth in 2019 after airline, flight additions

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Big buzz fluttered around Sarasota Bradenton International Airport in 2018 around new airlines and new routes. The airport, its CEO says, is on a continued upward swing.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

If Sarasota Bradenton International Airport had a New Year’s resolution for 2019, President and CEO Rick Piccolo says it would be, “Try to maintain the level of convenience at the airport while growing at an exponential rate.”

Piccolo has long characterized the airport, under the call letters SRQ, as an airport with a resort or country club-feel. That’s something the airport will continue to cultivate, he says, from the moment travelers drive in to the property to the moment they board their plane.

But after several years of a dearth of new flight announcements, 2018 saw the airport surge in that department, generating buzz — and more passengers. 

Both Allegiant Air and Frontier Airlines started service at SRQ in 2018, and American Airlines and United Airlines added flights. “You’ll see continued growth here,” Piccolo says of what’s ahead for the airport in 2019. But, while the airport will continue along an “upward trajectory,” he says growth probably won’t be on the same level as 2018.

With a 2018 budget of $22 million, SRQ has been talking to Allegiant for years, Piccolo says, trying to get the airline to start service at the airport.

Airport officials attend what he calls “speed dating for airlines,” gatherings where they pitch SRQ to airlines. At one such event fairly recently, SRQ didn’t even talk to Allegiant, thinking it was too much of a long shot. But after the event, Allegiant contacted the airport and said it was looking at the Sarasota-Bradenton market. Then, in January, Allegiant decided to add service at SRQ. That service started a few months later in April. “It was widely successful through the summer,” Piccolo says.

He thinks Allegiant looked at the growth of the community and decided Sarasota was a good fit. He also points to capacity constraints at airports in Punta Gorda and St. Petersburg, where Allegiant is the dominant carrier, as potential reasons why Allegiant wanted to come to SRQ.

“This broke the log jam, and now it’s coming fast and furious.” — Rick Piccolo, president and CEO, Sarasota Bradenton International Airport

As an incentive, Allegiant received $1 million in marketing funds from SRQ, with most of the marketing dollars spent on inbound cities. “It’s a great economic generator for the whole community,” Piccolo says.

Plus, he adds, airlines operate the first two years for free at the airport. After that, they pay landing fees and rent for ticket counters. The incentives, he says, act as seed money to help airline operations become successful.

Allegiant, after announcing Sarasota-Bradenton service, started a domino effect of new flights “This broke the log jam, and now it’s coming fast and furious,” Piccolo says. “Allegiant was the impetus for what we’ve seen.”

With the infrastructure the airport has in place, including a new $27 million air traffic control tower, there’s room for more growth. Piccolo says, “We’re well-equipped to more than double traffic.”

That could include drawing more passengers from nearby airports. Piccolo says SRQ primarily competes with five airports — in Fort Myers, Punta Gorda, Tampa, St. Petersburg and Orlando.

Additional growth could also come from increasing its business traveler demographic. Piccolo says the business traveler component of the airport’s customer base has already increased to 30%, with tourists making up the other 70%.

The future could bring improvements to the commercial side of the airport as well. Piccolo would like to see a major repair center that does heavy maintenance on jets at the airport, along with an air cargo facility. It will take a year or two to get infrastructure in place to handle operations like that, he says, including roadways, sewage and electrical work. The goal is to have businesses on board by 2025.

“We’re in a very good place right now,” Piccolo says. “We want to continue that momentum and be the choice of the community.” 

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