Administrators seek to add to Sarasota-Bradenton airport's allure

MANATEE -- Sandwiched between two larger airports that host lower-cost flights, the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport is taking the high road in the battle for passenger business -- the high-end road.

Nearly finished with about $20 million in renovations and other capital improvements, SRQ promotes itself as an airport where ticketing lines are short and the terminal is never awash in crowds of travelers. But its chief executive says that to attract more flights, airlines and passengers, the airport needs to be the most convenient in the state, hands down.

"We don't want to be the top airport in the country, but in the world," said Fredrick "Rick" Piccolo, the airport president and CEO the past two decades.

Debt free and expecting to earn up to $1.3 million in new capital-improvement dollars this year from a renegotiated profit-sharing agreement with its primary commercial air carriers, SRQ may soon be spending more money to jazz up the passenger experience. During Monday's quarterly meeting of the Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority, Piccolo rolled out several new initiatives, including a $2.2 million program of employee-suggested improvements, new signage and a promotional video aimed at attracting fliers for the airport's convenience, if not the price.

During an informal one-one-one presentation to the authority board, Piccolo acknowledged SRQ often cannot compete on price against airports in Tampa and Fort Myers. A study done a few years ago showed SRQ loses out on passengers when they find comparable flights at savings greater than $75 elsewhere.

While SRQ has expanded flight offerings since 2012, bringing in more airlines and competitive pricing remains a struggle. Piccolo said consolidation in the airline industry has created an "oligopoly" of carriers that can adjust their prices at will.

To interest those carriers in making some pricing concessions, SRQ's prospective improvements would be aimed at fliers who want a more relaxed travel experience. Many changes were proposed by the airport's 130 employees, then published this month under the title "Customer Service Strategy: Creating the SRQ experience one idea

at a time ..."

The proposed multimillion dollar program includes installing air conditioning on jetways, terminal seating with free tablet computer use, an outdoor break area for airport employees, parking improvements and the addition of a cell phone waiting lot.

Also on the list is a wholesale overhaul of the airport's deteriorating, 26-year-old signage. The authority entertained three proposals from sign architecture and design firms Monday, and chose to initially pursue negotiations with Gresham, Smith and Partners of Tampa. If hired, the firm would likely work on several alternative sign programs that would better identify the airport to local traffic, and could provide up-to-date airport information on animated and interactive signs.

The overall improvement program seemed to win the approval of the authority's newest member, Doug Holder of Sarasota. He said a better travel experience would convince him to fly out of SRQ.

"I would be willing to spend an extra 100 bucks to fly out of my hometown," he said.

A contract with Gresham, Smith and Partners could be approved as soon as the authority's August meeting. Proposed improvement projects in the customer service strategy document will likely be programmed into the airport's 2016 draft budget.

The airport has about $19.8 million in cash and investments on hand that it can use for facility improvements.