SRQ enjoying ‘unprecedented growth.’ Here’s how airport plans to get more flights

Between 2009 and 2018, passenger traffic at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport essentially was flat.

And then along came Allegiant Airlines, sparking a 40 percent leap in passenger traffic.

With SRQ suddenly more attractive to airlines and passengers, Allegiant benefited, legacy carriers such as Delta, American and United benefited, and so has SRQ.

“All airlines at SRQ have experienced growth in the past year,” airport president and CEO Rick Piccolo said.

This week, the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority met to review the proposed fiscal 2020 budget, and set a Sept. 23 public hearing date.

Piccolo clearly is having more fun these days than during all those lean years.

“This is the most different budget I have worked with here in more than 20 years,” Piccolo said. “It is unbelievable, unprecedented growth. It’s unreal.”

Rick Piccolo, president and CEO of Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, has plenty to smile about these days with all of the passenger growth. Bradenton Herald file photo

Allegiant launched service out of SRQ in April 2018 with three destinations, added nine more in November, and announced eight more in August.

At the same time, Piccolo signed Delta, United, American and JetBlue to five-year contract extensions. Also joining the mix of carriers at SRQ are Elite Airways, Frontier, and most recently, Sun Country.

“It’s going to be a very interesting time and we are still talking to other airlines,” Piccolo said.

One of the airport authority members asked Piccolo if he was talking to Southwest Airlines.

“We are always talking to Southwest,” Piccolo said.

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A potential obstacle: Southwest was flying more of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft than any other airline. Max aircraft were grounded after crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed 346 people.

“If Southwest had expansion plans, which might have included us, they got pushed back,” Piccolo said.

Airlines flying out of SRQ not only realize more income from passenger traffic, but they also share half the revenue generated at the terminal.

With all the increased business, airport authority members wondered whether there might need to be plans to add another wing to the terminal.

The airport master plan does have the addition of another wing covered, but the airport has not gotten to the point where it requires another wing, Piccolo said.

When — and if — that time comes, Piccolo estimated that a new wing might cost $80 million to $100 million and be paid for with a revenue bond.

Revenues for fiscal 2020 are estimated at $23.8 million, about $1.7 million more than the current fiscal year, Piccolo said.

“There are ways we can increase capacity in smaller projects,” Piccolo said.

All airport operations are funded by user fees, income from airport operations, and from state and federal grants and matching funds. No property taxes are used in the operation of the airport. With all of its growth and added expenses, the airport operates debt-free.

To manage and absorb the growth, the airport is increasing the size of its fuel farm, and plans changes to the baggage handling system.

The airport recently significantly increased its outlay for janitorial services, and may be looking at more changes such as gate management software, more police officers and a second shift for maintenance workers.

In other business, the airport authority ranked SchenkelShultz Architecture of Orlando first among companies that it will negotiate with for building two maintenance hangars near 15th Street East and Tallevast Road. One of the hangars would be used by Elite for its Embrarer ERJ-45 aircraft. The other hangar would be used by Manatee Technical College for proposed aircraft maintenance classes.

The project would be partially funded through a $3 million Florida Department of Economic Opportunity grant.