AirTran leaving SRQ, creating a $1.2M hole

jsalman@bradenton.comJanuary 21, 2012 

MANATEE -- AirTran, the second largest carrier at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, has notified officials it will cease all local service by summer.

AirTran, which accounted for 32 percent of the airport’s passengers last year, will discontinue operations at SRQ by Aug. 12, officials announced Friday.

The decision punches a $1.2 million blow to the airport, and leaves only three active airlines.

“While this is a significant challenge, it’s not a financial disaster,” SRQ Executive Director Rick Piccolo said. “We’ve made it through things like this in the past, and we will again. We’re sort of battle-tested.”

AirTran notified Piccolo on Friday morning that the airport was one of six across the country where service will be disconnected this year. AirTran also will pull out of Allentown, Pa.; Lexington, Ky.; Harrisburg, Pa.; Huntsville, Ala.; and White Plains, N.Y.

The airline, acquired by Southwest in May 2011, now plans to focus on existing service in larger, nearby markets. Southwest will assume 53 of AirTran’s 69 serviced cities.

The discount airline currently offers daily departures to Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis and Milwaukee, Southwest spokeswoman Katie McDonald said.

“We put our planes where the people are,” McDonald said. “Sarasota traffic typically has been very seasonal and can be covered with our existing service in Tampa and Fort Myers. With the difficult economic climate, we just couldn’t continue to support the service.”

AirTran brought about 360,000 passengers through the SRQ terminal last year, contributing between $700,000 and $1.2 million in revenue to the airport through parking, food service and other traveler spending, according to records.

Because AirTran is under contract until 2014, it will continue to the pay the airport about $1 million a year in rent through that time.

SRQ operates on a $22 million annual budget. Aside from some federal and state grants built into airfares, it receives no local tax support.

Tourism officials were surprised to learn of AirTran’s decision Friday.

But because many visitors already fly into the area through Tampa, they said a lot of the ramifications will depend on what happens there.

Most area business travelers also use Tampa because it offers more frequent and diverse flights, often at lower rates, they said.

“We just don’t know how important this will be ... it’s still premature,” said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Obviously we’re disappointed any time there’s an airline that decides to pull out of that beautiful airport.”

SRQ has seen passenger traffic plateau over the past few years, serving a total of 1.306 million passengers in 2011. Its remaining airlines will be U.S. Air, JetBlue and Delta -- its largest carrier.

Continental was the last to pull out of SRQ three years ago.

The airport plans to aggressively seek new airlines to fill the void left by AirTran, but that will present a challenge since the entire industry has been in a downsizing mode.

SRQ is in early discussions with a handful of potential replacements. Officials don’t expect the move to result in overall higher airfares.

“When you have mergers, you expect some of these things to happen,” Airport Authority Chairman Carlos Beruff said. “It’s a profitable market, so it’s odd, but they can pick and choose.”

Although the airport has been struggling of late, area officials said its need remains.

A recent study showed local travelers were willing to pay about $50 more per ticket to depart from and arrive in Manatee-Sarasota rather than Tampa or Fort Myers, mostly due to its convenience.

“It’s not a good thing,” said Mark Huey, executive director of the Sarasota Economic Development Corp. “Clearly when you lose domestic flight connections, it’s not a good thing for business recruitment or economic development.”

-- Herald reporter Christine Hawes contributed to this report.

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095.

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