MANATEE -- In a quest to market flights, Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport is trying to put the international in its name to good use.
SRQ airport officials see its offerings as more international as it picks up connecting hubs through major airlines Delta, United and Air Canada.
Each of those airlines can take passengers from Europe with a stop in either Atlanta, Newark, N.J., or Toronto and take them to Sarasota.
United's spring service to Newark can take passengers from Sarasota to Berlin and back via Chicago while Delta can bring passengers from Paris via Atlanta and dozens of other European cities. Air Canada can help Londoners get here via Toronto.
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"We have connections internationally now that we didn't have last year -- quite a bit more," said Mark Stuckey, vice president of special projects for SRQ during Wednesday's Airport Advisory Commission meeting.
That international connection is expected to grow as weekend flights are being added to LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy international airports in New York and O'Hare International in Chicago, he added.
"As they continue to add each airline here, the capacity increases for more opportunity for those better international connections," Stuckey said, which cuts down on layover times.
About 10 percent of the airport's passengers, or 150,000, were international travelers in 2013, he said.
"You're going to see a huge jump in that number this next year, but it continues to increase each year," Stuckey said, crediting the new Air Canada service for aiding in the increase.
Which airport international travelers connect through to clear customs is important. Area tourism and airport officials are pushing to get passengers to notice.
"Part of what we were promoting in London was it's so much easier to come into Atlanta than it is in Miami," said Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County. "It's a better experience, the terminal is better, it's new and can handle it."
Delta is pushing a partnership with Virgin Airlines that should help add flights to and from London via Atlanta, she said.
SRQ airport announced Tuesday that Air Canada is adding summer flights twice weekly to Sarasota which is also part of that airline's international plan.
"Air Canada is building their international service out of Toronto and a lot of people in Europe find it easier to clear customs in Toronto," Stuckey said.
As American Airlines works through smoothing its operations after merging with US Airways a year ago, Piccolo expects his staff to have serious discussions about adding flights to Dallas. A federal grant that could be used to help start that service expires in 2016, Piccolo said.
An expanded customs area that will handle 300 passengers per peak hour up from 150 will help spur international offerings. That $2.3 million project is expected to be finished in May.
"Over the years sometimes Virginia [Haley] and I would interact with international carriers and they ask about the customs and our answer was, 'we're going to finish it, we're going to work on it,' and until you do they walk away with that question," said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "If it's not there yet, they might not believe you."
Airport officials have said that the larger customs area can also process larger aircraft for international flights, giving hope for a charter service to Germany one day. Regular direct flights to Germany would be tough to obtain now as Tampa International Airport announced this year that Edelweiss Air will fly non-stop three times a week to Zurich starting next year.
U.S. Customs and Borders Patrol staffing still needs to be addressed, Piccolo said. New leadership at the federal agency has sped up processing times with new kiosks that read passports and fingerprints.
"It lessens the amount of CPB officers needed and CPB likes it because they can concentrate their efforts on risk-based and flights where the risks are more dangerous," Piccolo said. "...It makes it easier for airports like us where staffing levels aren't as high as they used to be."
Brand USA, the federal government's tourism agency, has another five-year renewal where its mission is to bring more international visitors to America, Haley said.
"They've been a tremendous help to us reaching international markets we couldn't touch before," she said.
Last winter, Brand USA's Discover America shot several tourism videos in Manatee and Sarasota in multiple languages to communicate to those tourists, visiting the beaches, IMG Academy and area museums.
"Not only is the international market coming in, they're actually buying property here, too, and they're still going to be using those international flights to go back to see family," said Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who chairs the Tourist Development Council.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter@ImYourChuck.