MANATEE -- Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport is expected to fare better than expected after experiencing its first full calendar year without AirTran.
After initially projecting that airport traffic would decrease 15 percent when AirTran's departure took away 360,000 passengers in August 2012. Thanks to added flights from JetBlue, Delta and United to New York, Boston and Chicago, the airport is projected to be down about 85,000 passengers or 6.7 percent for the year, said Frederick "Rick" Piccolo, president and chief executive officer of SRQ airport.
"I thought if we could hit down 15 percent for the year we would have done very well," Piccolo said Wednesday at a semi-annual update during the Airport Advisory Commission meeting. "We have far exceeded where we thought we would be, and the airlines seem to be pleased making money and are doing well."
The airport is awaiting final passenger count numbers for December from one regional carrier, and traffic was up 8.1 percent in December compared to the previous year and up more than four percent out of the last five months of 2013, according to numbers released late Wednesday.
While working to rebound from AirTran, the airport is also battling against losing its nonstop service to Reagan National Airport (DCA) through U.S. Airways since the airline merged with American Airlines. The airport held a press conference with Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Sarasota) last month to rally support to keep the flight as regulators determined the new American airline would have to give up flight slots at Reagan to avoid a monopoly.
"We don't see any danger to the DCA flight," Piccolo said Wednesday. "I think that's very solid."
Piccolo said he's working to set up a meeting with American's new route planner.
The airport will see the start of additional renovations this year. The second floor of the terminal will be renovated, the travel lanes driving into the airport will be reconfigured and a new security system will be installed in the parking lot.
The airport is expected to be debt free come August, Piccolo said, as it finishes its renovations.
One improvement that may be delayed is a new and relocated air traffic control tower that would also open up about 48 acres of airfield for development. The airport is only waiting on federal funding to come through for the project from the FAA.
"Those talks have not been very fruitful yet," Piccolo said.
Longterm plans for charter flights from Europe are continuing as design plans for a larger customs area are expected to be approved by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol within the next month. When the $1.2 million project is completed, the airport hopes to attract European charter service in three to five years, perhaps with German carrier Condor, Piccolo said, being able to handle about 300 passengers per hour.
Tour operators in Europe are telling tourism officials in Manatee County that Europeans are looking to explore more of Florida. Staff at Delta and American are showing an eagerness to align schedules to make connections and flights possible from Europe to Sarasota, said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"Almost every tour operator that we met with kind of said our customers are getting tired of Orlando and Mickey Mouse, and we're looking for something new," Falcione said. "There's the opportunity -- expose the west coast. You may even see Heathrow, SRQ, Orlando and then back to Heathrow. You could even see something like that initially. They could spend a week here, spend a week in Orlando and then they're gone."
Delta is also partnering with the visitors bureau to provide 22 vouchers to German radio sweepstakes winners to bring them to the airport, Falcione added.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.