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Losing AirTran was a crushing blow to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, but the facility has come most of the way back. It’s tough for a non-hub airport to recover from such a blow when many airlines are focusing on international service.
The chief of the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport received a perfect performance review Thursday.
The Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority praised SRQ CEO and president Frederick “Rick” Piccolo in its annual review giving him a perfect 300 with Commissioner Peter Wish adding a “plus” beside the leadership score.
The authority will go over Piccolo’s review during a workshop at 11 a.m. Monday inside the airport’s administrative offices. Piccolo earned 250 out of 300 points in 2013 because Wish, on the board four months at that point, declined to grade Piccolo.
Last year marked a full year of the airport losing AirTran. The airport did not fully recover and was down 6.6 percent in passenger traffic. AirTran had accounted for 30 percent of all passengers. Existing airlines helped ease the blow:
United Airlines expanded service to Chicago in the winter; Delta added daily service to LaGuardia, U.S. Airways added flights to Washington after a possibility of leaving; Air Canada increased seating and rebranded flights as Rouge and JetBlue also added seats.
“I don’t think anyone came as close to recovery as well as we did,” compared to other airports that lost AirTran service, Piccolo said.
Despite the loss of passengers, the airport stayed in the black, with net cash of $996,000 in operations after rebating $600,000 to the airlines as part of an agreement. The airport authority also has more than $20 million in reserves.
“The lineup of people you can approach is pretty thin,” Piccolo said. “It doesn’t mean you don’t want to try to approach them, but not as many opportunities are on the domestic side.”
Commissioner Jack Rynerson of Tidy Island is the longest-serving board member and understands the plight Piccolo faces negotiating with airlines. It takes about $2 million to offset a new flight and airlines need to make a profit. On top of that, airlines, like Delta, expect to reduce their fleet.
Ideally, Rynerson would like Southwest to reconsider SRQ, but with domestic carriers offering little flexibility, international flights are being targeted.
“We are talking to overseas folks, and we’re thinking where we will have success is to start getting charter flights,” Rynerson said, helping businesses such as IMG Academy bring athletes from Europe for training and games. The rowing venue development will also help attract international air service, Piccolo added.
A customs inspections area is being expanded to handle more international passengers and is expected to be finished by December, with hopes of new service by January.
Back on American soil, Piccolo would like to see United increase the number of flights in the coming year, and will continue to pursue flights to the West Coast and seasonal spring training flights to Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The airport has a grant that expires in December 2016 to help attract West Coast service.
The authority will be asked to approve an outline of an agreement with airlines that will keep them here. While past agreements gave all profits back to the airlines, the airport is seeking to share in that revenue, Piccolo said.
Wish said he would like to see an advertising push to show how SRQ is easier to use than Tampa International Airport. Rynerson thinks more advertising dollars will be devoted this fall. The airport’s annual operating expense will be reduced by $5.3 million, allowing more marketing.
The airport also continues to undergo a facelift to help attract passengers and airlines.
Baggage claim renovation is expected to be completed this month. The fifth phase of the terminal renovation will be up for bid approval Monday, with a $6.2 million low bid from Magnum Builders. The project is expected to start in July and will take 13 months to complete.
“I think it’s going to be the most challenging and complex part of the renovations,” Piccolo said, having to coordinate sections of the terminal that will have to be blocked.
The biggest challenge ahead will be acquiring more flights and destinations and exploring whether the air traffic control tower project can move forward.
A new air traffic control tower design is finished and the airport hopes the FAA will fund construction. The state and the airport have committed $4 million each to the tower, which is estimated to cost $12 million to $15 million, Piccolo said. The redesign allows the tower to be moved to the southwest end of the airport to open up 40 acres of the infield to be developed for hangars and a potential hotel.