The Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority gave Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport president and CEO Fredrick “Rick” Piccolo a perfect evaluation on paper, but they still applied pressure at the board workshop on Monday.
“We made pretty clear that while you got the perfect score, you’ve got challenges,” said vice chair and Manatee County seat holder Robert Spencer.
Piccolo was hired at SRQ in 1995. The employment contract between Piccolo and SMAA expires next June.
All members of the board, except the newest member, Kristin Incrocci, questioned Piccolo, 65, on why the airport hasn’t been able to entice new airlines to fly into or out of SRQ and provide more direct flights. Piccolo’s raise is not dictated by the evaluation, but by the contract, which sets it at 3 percent.
Piccolo currently makes $297,000.
Incrocci was appointed to the vacant Manatee County seat by Gov. Rick Scott at the end of March. Incrocci said she did not feel qualified to evaluate Piccolo’s performance over the past year and excused herself from the evaluation, though she was present at the meeting.
“Everybody I’ve talked to complains we can’t get anywhere from here,” Manatee board member and SMAA secretary Carlos Beruff said.
He emphasized that, while it had “nothing to do with the evaluation,” he wanted to take the opportunity to discuss “how the airport moves forward.”
Spencer agreed with Beruff in a post-meeting interview. The board doesn’t get a chance to discuss these matters often, he said.
“It wasn’t that we were dissatisfied with his part of that,” Spencer said. “We were just trying to make clear to the public that that is our top priority. I really believe he is doing all that he can do but we just wanted to make it clear that our board, if we need to put additional resources into that, let’s do it and that is our top priority in the coming year.”
Piccolo reminded the board that, per federal law, no airport can offer more than two years of free services to entice an airline. SRQ’s sweeteners also include marketing money and services provided by the Sarasota and Bradenton tourism bureaus.
A destination such as Houston or Dallas is on SRQ’s wish list and has been for some time. An incentive package for a flight to Dallas or Houston is worth between $2 million to $2.5 million, Piccolo said, because of a federal grant SRQ has.
“Then why do they say no?” Sarasota board member Peter Wish asked.
“It’s the marketplace and the competition,” Piccolo said. “The biggest thing that has hurt this airport in my opinion is that the previous administration approved four major merger-acquisitions. You took the eight biggest airlines in the country and you turned them into the four biggest airlines in the country, which control about 85 percent of the market.”
Piccolo threw out the term “strategic patience,” which seems to be what the SMAA is banking on for the airport’s future success.
“I’ve been talking to industry experts also and they are reinforcing what Mr. Piccolo is telling us,” Spencer said. “We’re in a tough spot. As we gain a few more people and it becomes a little more congested, that’s when the (airlines) will be willing to make that switch to this airport from Tampa or other places. What we try to do is be ready when they’re ready to do that.”