MANATEE -- A small Key West airline that has specialized in island-hopping flights is making a big jump to bring more Manatee-Sarasota passengers to Florida's southern keys.
Raven Air will begin thrice-weekly flights between Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and Key West starting Jan. 13. It is the airport's first service to Key West.
The airline will fly a five-passenger prop-driven Piper Aztec aircraft between SRQ and Key West International Airport. Fredrick "Rick" Piccolo, SRQ's CEO, said the new service, though small in scale, will likely be popular. The airport has received regular requests over the years to add flight service to Key West.
"This fills a little desire people have here," he said.
The flights will arrive and depart SRQ on Mondays, Fridays and Sundays. Flights will depart from SRQ at 11:30 a.m., arriving at 12:40 p.m. in Key West. Return flights leave Key West at 9:50 a.m., arriving at SRQ at 11 a.m.
Raven Air flights between SRQ and Key West will be priced at $129 each way, plus tax. Travelers can begin making reservations online at the airline's website starting Tuesday.
Passengers will have to travel light for the time being, due to limited baggage space. Each passenger will be allowed a single, soft-sided checked bag.
The new service is an evolutionary step for Raven Air, which has primarily offered charter helicopter and airplane services in the Keys since its inception in 2007. Jeffrey Fonner, Raven Air's owner, bought the airline last summer. SRQ is one of three regional and international airports Raven will fly to starting in 2016. The company is also adding Marco Island and Fort Myers to its portfolio of destinations.
SRQ, Fonner said, will likely be Raven's biggest market.
"It's not huge, but it's a desirable place that we think can be profitable," he said.
The flights also promise to be convenient. Passengers will not need to go through a security check, boarding directly out of the airport's ticketing area. Piccolo said the airline, which is classed as a Part 135 carrier with the Federal Aviation Administration, is allowed to load passengers who have not been screened thanks to the small size of its aircraft. Passengers are escorted to the aircraft.
Both Fonner and Piccolo said they believe the hour-long island flights will appeal both to SRQ area residents and vacationers flying into the airport from elsewhere in the United States. The flights will be a time saver over the minimum six-hour drive from the Manatee-Sarasota area to Key West.
The flights will also offer an alternative to the Key West Express catamaran that links Key West and Fort Myers with a 3 1/2-hour boat trip. That service is priced between $125 and $154 for a round trip.
Raven Air is now one of seven airlines serving SRQ. The most recent carrier addition to that lineup came when Canadian discount airline WestJet announced in July that it would start twice-weekly service to Ontario. Those flights start Friday.
Reservations for the SRQ-to-Key West flights aboard Raven Air can be made on the company's website, www.ravenair.net.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter@MattAtBradenton.