SARASOTA -- Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport's departures suffered the largest decrease among Florida airports over the past six years, a study released this week by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows.
Departures at SRQ airport dropped 38 percent from 2007 to 2012, leading to a 24 percent reduction in available seats during the same time period, according to a small community air service trend report by MIT's International Center for Air Transportation.
The SRQ hit in departures led all major Florida airports with commercial air service. Tallahassee, close behind with 35 percent fewer departures, has the worst seat reduction in the state at 31 percent; Sarasota's 24 percent seat reduction was second worst.
The numbers do not surprise those paying attention to the airline industry locally and nationally as legacy airlines continue to merge and giants such as Southwest cut service.
Shrinking airline industry
Continental left SRQ and eight other markets in 2008, leaving travelers without convenient options to Cleveland, Houston and Newark, N.J. Southwest pulled the plug on its AirTran service in Sarasota last year, which
was one-third of the airport's service at the time. Southwest also cut 10 percent of its domestic departures in the six-year span.
SRQ is classified as a small-hub airport, which boarded between .05 and .25 percent of all U.S. air passengers in 2011, according to the report. In 2007, the airport had 9,617 departures, then dipped to 5,973 in 2012. Seat availability declined 24 percent from 986,412 to 748,575 during the same time.
"On the number of seats, you see a smaller decline because some of it was backfilled with bigger aircraft with the carriers that remained," said Rick Piccolo, chief executive and president of SRQ.
Carriers such as Delta used larger planes while JetBlue added flights to New York and Boston.
The average decrease for airports in SRQ's category was 18.2 percent in flights and 13.5 percent in seats, according to the report.
Picolo has been aware the downturn in flights and fewer airline options has travelers heading to Tampa and even Orlando. He launched a campaign to get locals to consider using only SRQ for air travel and, when that isn't possible, using only airlines that fly in and out of SRQ.
The airport received a Public Relations Association Image Award for its Do You SRQ? campaign. The nearly $125,000 campaign also included print and video ads, social media marketing and a video featuring a ninja warrior stealthily navigating the airport.
Whether the campaign was effective in converting pledges into passengers remains to be seen. The loss of a daily, non-stop flight from Baltimore, didn't affect attendance at Baltimore Orioles spring training, which had a record attendance at Ed Smith Stadium this year.
The MIT report was released the same day Piccolo was awarded the Tourism Outreach Award for helping gain exposure for the area, particularly in the United Kingdom and Germany.
The Sarasota airport serviced 60,000 international tourists via international airport hubs last year, even though SRQ lacks a European carrier, Piccolo said. Air Canada reported 3 percent more passengers passed through SRQ last season, he said, with 30,000 passengers.
To make up for the loss of AirTran, JetBlue increased flights to New York and Boston, and added flights to O'Hare International in Chicago via United Airlines. Delta helped fill in some gaps, too.
Piccolo expects departures to improve this year as Jet Blue adds year-round service to Boston, and more flights to New York.
To add more service, Piccolo said he will have to talk to the existing carriers to cut a deal because mergers have decreased the number of airlines.
"We're hopeful over time that service can grow where we were pre-AirTran," he said.
The merger of U.S Airways, one of SRQ's main airlines, and American may be good news for SRQ. Piccolo said the merger could open an opportunity to add service to Dallas -- a major American hub.
The Airport Authority Board will hear an update on the status of the startup Sunrise Airlines at its 1 p.m. meeting Monday in the Dan McClure Auditorium, 5900 Airport Auditorium Lane. Sarasota resident and former Oasis Hong Kong Airlines executive Stephen Miller is behind the potential new airline. Miller and his wife, Hannah, are trying to raise $30 million and gain Federal Aviation Administration approval to launch Sunrise.
Piccolo will also receive his annual performance review Monday. He has received superb reviews over the last 15 years despite rocky times in the airline industry.
SRQ's story isn't unlike those at the nation's 29 largest airports, which lost 8.8 percent of yearly scheduled domestic flights since 2007 compared with smaller airports, which lost 21.3 percent of their flights, according to the study. Low-cost carriers such as Southwest and ultra-low cost carriers such as Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air have grown over the last six years, according to the report.
The bright spot among small Florida airports is Orlando-Sanford International Airport, which increased flights 48 percent during the six-year period, mainly through Allegiant destinations.
The airport is a strong competitor for visitors coming to Manatee County. Orlando-Sanford brought 15.7 percent of visitors by plane in 2012 compared with 17.3 percent who arrived at SRQ, according to the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Ultra-low cost carriers providing infrequent service at least partially replace traditional legacy carriers such US Airways that have pulled out of markets. While JetBlue, Frontier and AirTran increased flights during the study period, it wasn't enough to make up for the legacy brand cuts by American, Delta, US Airways and United/Continental.
"It shows the industry itself has consolidated a great deal," Piccolo said. "It gives you fewer flights and fewer seats because airlines are tightening their operations and making sure every flight is pretty much full."
Federal funding cuts and a new federal rule requiring newly hired pilots to have at least 1,500 hours of flight time could cause additional issues for regional air service, according to the report. The cuts could force smaller airports to use incentives to attract new service.
"However, conducting too many of these deals runs the risk of drawing the ire of incumbent airlines, who may threaten to exit if they do not receive the same preferential treatment as a new entrant," according to the report.
SRQ will be more solid financial ground come August 2014 when it pays off $150 million in bond debt for its terminal built in 1989 and when renovations will be complete, Piccolo said.
The airport, funded without annual taxpayer subsidies, can then bring its cost of doing business down to help lure airlines, he said.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-525-3192. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.