Airport in talks with Southwest to resume service at Sarasota-Bradenton

Airport's CEO receives high marks from board

cschelle@bradenton.comMay 13, 2013 

SARASOTA -- Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport is keeping an open dialogue with Southwest Airlines despite its marketing encouraging travelers to not fly with the carrier.

Rick Piccolo, president and chief executive officer of the airport, told his Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority board Monday morning that the two sides are talking again.

"We reinstituted contact with them, all we're doing is talking," Piccolo told the Herald. "It's a good exercise for both. Good for us, good for them."

Southwest's AirTran service left SRQ airport in 2012, and the airport started a Do You SRQ? marketing campaign to have passengers and organizations pledging to use the airport and its carriers, basically nixing Southwest out of the equation.

While Piccolo is still pushing that pledge, internal talks between the two sides to resume service in some manner are ongoing.

"What applied a year ago may not apply today, and may not apply five years from now," Piccolo said. "We're very gracious, looking forward to continuing the dialogue."

Despite the loss of AirTran, passenger traffic decreased just 2.6 percent in 2012, according to Piccolo's annual report.

"We recovered about 60 to 65 percent of total passengers that AirTran took away," Piccolo said.

So far, passenger count is down 14.4 percent through one-third of the year, and Piccolo expects that number to improve during the summer, ending around 11 to 12 percent down. The full-year additions of JetBlue service to New York and Boston should improve those numbers.

Financially, the airport is doing well thanks to its conservative fiscal approach, according to the report. A surplus of $821,000 was rebated to the airlines, and the airport had a net of $2.4 million from operations in fiscal 2012. That stood as an increase of $735,000 from fiscal 2012, according to the report. The airport is on track to be debt free in August 2014, paying off its terminal built in 1989, and has been operating on a pay-as-you-go basis save for the $150 million bond for the terminal.

"I think our conservative financial management has strategically placed the airport in a strong position to weather the economic storms and we are better positioned than most airports from a financial perspective," Piccolo wrote in his report. "The Southwest announcement is a prime example of how the prudent fiscal policies positioned SRQ to weather the volatile swings in aviation with a minimal impact on airport facilities, services, and staff."

Several improvements are expected to help the airport in the coming years. A customs inspection facility continues to progress, and the airport hopes to advertise bids to construct the areas this year.

A new air traffic control tower is designed and the airport hopes the FAA will fund construction, but sequestration budget cuts in Washington stalled those talks. The state and the airport have both committed $4 million each to the tower, which is estimated to cost a total of $12 million to $15 million, Piccolo said.

The tower would be relocated to the southwest part of the property to allow about 40 acres to be developed for hangars and other real estate development, Piccolo said.

The airport is also hoping to finalize regulatory approval for its customs, which when completed would help lure international carriers, Piccolo said.

The $2.5 million facility is designed to handle 130 to 150 passengers during a peak hour, which is fine for narrow-bodied aircrafts, but European carriers use larger planes, so the facility needs to handle 250 to 300 passengers in a peak hour if it wants to attract carriers like Monarch, he said.

Seventy percent of the construction cost is funded through grants, he said.

The authority released its annual performance evaluation for Piccolo on Monday, and the chief executive officer received a near perfect score save for one incomplete grade.

Piccolo earned 250 points out of a possible 300 points on his annual evaluation. Newly appointed board member Dr. Peter A. Wish declined to grade Piccolo because Wish only attended one meeting.

"I don't feel I have enough information to make my evaluation," Wish wrote in his review. "From what I have observed so far about Mr. Piccolo's performance, I am very impressed."

Wish was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in February to replace former board member Bob Waechter, who quit the board in December after he was accused of felony identity fraud and improper campaign contributions relating to allegations he purchased Visa gift cards in a Republican political rival's name and donated those funds to a Democratic fund.

Piccolo is graded on 10 areas: business development, relationship with board, financial management, public image, staff development, community relations, strategic planning and goals, leadership, job and industry knowledge and regulatory compliance.

Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter@ImYourChuck.

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