SRQ to enhance incentives for spring training flights from Pittsburgh, Baltimore

cschelle@bradenton.comNovember 22, 2013 

MANATEE -- Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport wants to play ball with the airlines for spring training, and hopes that some extra incentives will hit a home run for new service.

The Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority will consider adopting additional language to give airport staff more power to incentivize airlines -- likely Delta -- to bring baseball fans from Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

"We're trying to work with those destinations to see if we could get a dedicated flight, whether it's on the weekends or put a package together," said Frederick "Rick" Piccolo, president and chief executive officer of SRQ.

Delta offered direct flights during 2013 spring training, and Piccolo wants that service to at least return. Direct flights are where planes travel to a hub, like Atlanta, and during a brief layover passengers don't have to deplane or switch planes.

"A person who was a fan of the Pirates or fan of the Orioles doesn't have to worry about making a connection," Piccolo said.

The funds will come from the existing Air Carrier Incentive Program that the airport offers. There is $700,000 available from the $1.5 million fund, Piccolo said. The program waives landing fees for airlines that qualify and reduces other fees by 33 percent for the airlines, and also offers marketing money for the new service.

The authority will consider the request at its meeting 1 p.m. Monday inside the

Dan P. McClure Auditorium, 5900 Airport Auditorium Lane, Sarasota.

The airport is also working with both Pittsburgh International and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall airports, on whether those airports can offer money from their own incentive programs to help Delta make the service possible.

Those flights are especially convenient for Pittsburgh Pirates employees who prefer to land in Sarasota and come to Pirate City instead of landing in Tampa and driving down, said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Falcione's staff will work with AAA and the Pittsburgh Convention and Visitors Bureau to create a special travel package for spring training through Delta, which they hope to offer in time for Pirate Fest, Dec. 14 in Pittsburgh. Once a fan flies here for spring training, it helps create more tourism opportunities for the Bradenton area by generating repeat customers.

"It creates the awareness to Pittsburghers for future vacations so they remember to look into flying into Sarasota-Bradenton first when they come visit here," Falcione said.

Mark Stuckey, vice president of special projects, told the Tourist Development Council last month that the airport is pushing for non-stop flights from Pittsburgh for spring training. And while that might not be possible for this season, he hopes that it will be possible for 2015 spring training.

If non-stop flights are added for spring training under the improved program, flights to Baltimore and Pittsburgh would only have be offered for six weeks instead of 12 to qualify for marketing funds to advertise the new flights, according to a draft of the new incentives.

The incentive program will also further define international flight qualifications that will help attract new Canadian service, Piccolo said.

Air Canada started a new flag called rouge (yes, it's all lowercase) that adds 44 passengers a day with the newly remodeled planes, Piccolo said. If approved, the incentives can be applied toward the rouge service, which starts the week after Thanksgiving.

The incentives could also help attract Air Canada or other Canadian carriers such as WestJet to add more Canadian destinations.

The incentives could help bolster an airport that is showing signs of recovering from the lost 240,000 passengers from AirTran in 2012. The airport is seeing on average 8.4 percent more passengers pass through the last three months compared to last year, Piccolo said. Traffic was up 8.3 percent, 7.5 percent and 9.2 percent in August, September and October, respectively, according to the airport's passenger count report.

When accounting for AirTran, passenger traffic is down 8.4 percent through 10 months this year.

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

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