MANATEE -- Sarasota Bradenton International Airport is bucking the state's typical slow travel trends this summer, with passenger traffic rising considerably from a year ago.
SRQ saw 95,439 total passengers travel through its terminal in June, an increase of 9.6 percent from the same time last year. Midway through 2012, total flyer counts remain 1.9 percent ahead of the previous year's pace, according to data released by the airport Wednesday.
The positive momentum comes in a month that's historically one of the worst for tourism in Southwest Florida -- with other major airports in the region trending in the opposite direction.
By comparison, passenger traffic at Tampa International Airport and Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers was down from June 2011. Year-to-date passenger traffic through six months at RSW trails 2011 by 6 percent while TPA stayed relatively flat -- improving less than half a percent, records show.
The increases at SRQ also gain significance with the permanent departure of AirTran on the horizon.
The carrier, which represents about one-third of SRQ's total passenger load with about 360,000 passengers last year, will be exiting the airport Aug. 12 to focus on existing service in Tampa.
The AirTran move has been estimated to deliver a $1.2 million blow to SRQ, which operates on a $22 million annual budget.
"We haven't lost AirTran yet, that will happen next month, so those numbers are still in there and a lot of the new flights we added have already started," SRQ
CEO Rick Piccolo said. "It shows the market remains under-served."
SRQ already has recovered nearly 95 percent of the total seats lost when AirTran leaves, including new flights to Chicago, New York and Atlanta.
The airport also is vying for $500,000 worth of federal grants to expand flight opportunities to the West Coast through connections to the hub in Houston.
But with the airline industry still shrinking, and the number of viable carriers still scarce, SRQ has mostly focused on the potential for new flights with carriers that have existing service here, Piccolo said.
Delta Air Lines, U.S. Air, Air Canada, and JetBlue are currently operating at SRQ. United Airlines is adding flights in November.
Delta this year has brought larger planes to serve its routes at the airport -- increasing total capacity by 200 seats a day.
The airline also has made schedule adjustments for the first half of 2013 that will provide direct, same-plane service to Pittsburgh and Baltimore to increase spring training access for travelling fans. The daily flights will operate in both directions with a 40-minute stops in Atlanta, the airport announced Wednesday.
Baltimore, whose Orioles play the exhibition season in Sarasota, was among the direct flights lost in the AirTran pull out. Pittsburgh didn't previously offer any direct-flight connections. The Pirates make its Spring Training home in Bradenton.
"We see a big advantage of marketing this in the Pittsburgh area," said Trevor Gooby, senior director of Florida Operations for the Pittsburgh Pirates. "This is the first step, and hopefully the airline will see this as an important route -- with fans coming down for Spring Training -- and they make it a non-stop flight in the future."
SRQ also launched a new marketing campaign this summer aimed to plug the leak of 1.5 million passengers a year -- or 70 percent of air travelers between Manatee and Sarasota -- who fly through other airports.
The "Do You SRQ" campaign is a community pledge for businesses and local organizations to book with SRQ whenever feasible -- citing the local economic impact.
More than 100 area companies employing 1,500 workers as well as 80 individual travellers have already signed a pledge. The airport hopes to hit 1,000 by the end of the year.
SRQ, which has no taxing authority, generates nearly $1 billion in total economic activity, leading to 11,487 local jobs and $314 million in payrolls, records show.
"Those (AirTran) seats had to go somewhere, and other airlines have stepped up, so I think we're in good shape," Airport Authority Commissioner Gary Kompothecras said. "The airport makes money, and all of the debt is paid off. Of course, we want more airlines to come in, but we can't completely dictate that."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman