AirTran pulling all flights from Sarasota Bradenton Airport

MANATEE — The second largest carrier at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport has notified officials it will cease all local service by summer.AirTran, which accounted for 32 percent of the airport’s passengers last year, will entirely discontinue at SRQ by Aug. 12. The decision punches a $1.2 million blow to the airport, and leaves only three active airlines.

“While this is a significant challenge, it’s not a financial disaster,” SRQ Executive Director Rick Piccolo said. “We’ve made it through things like this in the past, and we will again. We’re sort of battle tested.”

AirTran notified Piccolo Friday morning that the airport was among six across the country where service would be disconnected this year. AirTran also will pull out of Allentown, Pa.; Lexington, Ky.; Harrisburg, Pa.; Huntsville, Ala.; and White Plains, N.Y.

The airline, acquired by Southwest in May 2011, now plans to focus on existing service in larger nearby markets. Southwest will assume 53 of AirTran’s 69 serviced cities.

“We put our planes where the people are,” Southwest spokeswoman Katie McDonald said. “Sarasota traffic typically has been very seasonal and can be covered with our existing service in Tampa and Fort Myers. With the difficult economic climate, we just couldn’t continue to support the service.”

AirTran brought about 360,000 passengers through the SRQ terminal last year, shovelling between $700,000 and $1.2 million in ancillary revenue to the airport through parking and food service, according to records.

Because the AirTran is under contract until 2014, it will continue to the pay the airport about $1 million a year in rent through that time.

The airport operates on a $22 million annual budget. Aside from some federal and state grants built into airfares, it receives no local tax dollars.Tourism officials were surprised to hear about AirTran’s decision Friday. Because many tourists fly into the area through Tampa, they said a lot of the potential ramifications will depend on what happens there.

“We just don’t know how important this will be ... it’s still premature,” said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Obviously we’re disappointed any time there’s an airline that decides to pull out of that beautiful airport.”

The airport has seen passenger traffic mostly flatten over the past few years, serving a total of 1.306 million passengers in 2011. The only remaining airlines will be Delta, U.S. Air and Jet Blue.

Continental was the last to pull out of SRQ three years ago.

The airport plans to aggressively seek new airlines to fill the void left by AirTran, but that will present a challenge since the entire industry has been in a downsizing mode. SRQ is in early discussions with a handful of potential replacements, officials said.

“When you have mergers, you expect some of these things to happen,” Airport Authority Chairman Carlos Beruff said. “It’s a profitable market, so it’s odd, but they can pick and choose.”

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095.