SARASOTA — After years of courtship, Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport is on the verge of landing its Holy Grail: Direct service by Southwest Airlines.
Southwest’s plans to acquire AirTran Airways means Southwest could be taking off and landing at SRQ as soon as next year, depending on when shareholders and regulators approve the $3.4 billion deal.
It wasn’t the way airport officials had envisioned luring the discount carrier, but said Monday they’ll take it.
“They’re a stronger airline (than AirTran) and their presence in our market bodes well for our future,” said Fredrick “Rick” Piccolo, SRQ’s president and chief executive officer. “Overall, it’s a real positive for the airport.”
The impact won’t be immediate. Both airlines said they will continue to operate independently until the deal closes, then gradually integrate under the Southwest name.
AirTran will continue to offer daily flights from SRQ to Atlanta, Baltimore and Chicago, as well as seasonal service to Boston, Indianapolis and Milwaukee.
“It’ll be business as usual,” said Michael Boyd of Boyd Group International, a consultant to SRQ.
SRQ used a $1.5 million federal grant to lure AirTran in 2005. The grant, used to subsidize the airline’s startup and initial operating costs, was part of a nearly $4 million incentive package.
It since has grown into SRQ’s No. 2 airline behind Delta, with a 30 percent market share so far this year, according to airport figures.
AirTran was among several low-fare carriers, including Southwest, that the airport has wooed in hopes of stemming the loss of local passengers to airports in Tampa and Fort Myers. While Southwest flies at those two airports, it has consistently rebuffed SRQ.
With the merger, its distinctive red, blue and tan planes will become a familiar sight at SRQ. But Boyd said it likely won’t lead to additional flights or destinations because neither airline has any aircraft on order.
“Whatever AirTran’s flying, Southwest will fly and that’s it,” he said. “Don’t expect that you’re suddenly going to get direct service to Phoenix or get service to L.A.”
Piccolo agreed but said Southwest’s broader route network, including several cities in the western United States, will benefit local travelers and SRQ.
“It certainly increases the possibility of adding new markets,” he said.
Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.