SRQ airport sends call for help in lobbying Southwest Airlines

MANATEE -- The Sarasota Bradenton International Airport has sent out a call for help.

SRQ President and CEO Rick Piccolo delivered a mass email blast to community leaders Saturday, asking them to join the airport in a letter-writing campaign targeting Southwest Airlines.

The goal: convince the carrier to reverse a decision announced earlier this month to cease all local service by subsidiary AirTran on Aug. 12.

The email comes just days after Piccolo wrote a guest column in the Bradenton Herald detailing the AirTran withdrawal and first hinting a desire to solicit public lobbying efforts.

He’s also encouraging visitors to boycott Southwest flights out of Tampa.

“It’s important the community express to Southwest, we want them here,” Piccolo said. “I don’t know that tomorrow they will suddenly turn around and decide to stay, but if we can get enough ground hill support, it will help. We have to show them our market is different than Tampa.”

Southwest Airlines, which acquired AirTran in May 2011, will pull all AirTran flights from SRQ this summer to concentrate on existing Southwest service in Tampa and Fort Myers.

SRQ will join as many as 15 other airports where the carrier will discontinue service this year, experts predict. The airline represents nearly one-third of the SRQ’s total passenger load.

Piccolo is now asking stakeholders to write letters to executives at Southwest, pleading for them to stay.

In an email sent to community leaders, Piccolo even supplied a sample letter that calls the decision a “grave mistake for Southwest’s business future and once stellar reputation.” It goes on argue most local travellers won’t drive to another community to fly Southwest.

Several business organizations have already responded, including the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, which is calling on support from its member base.

“There are a few other possibilities out there, but if there’s even a slim chance to have them reconsider, we would love for them to do so,” Chamber President Bob Bartz said. “We understand what impact this can have for the airport.”

Although the company still insists otherwise, officials predict the letter-writing campaign may have some success because Southwest is now paying closer attention.

As a result of recent media coverage, Southwest Executive Vice President Ron Ricks called Piccolo on Thursday to apologize for the way the AirTran withdrawal was handled.

Typically when a carrier pulls out of an airport, an executive will fly down to deliver the news in person. In this case, a mid-level manager called Piccolo on the phone Jan. 20, with little explanation for the move, Piccolo said.

Ricks also confirmed to Piccolo’s suspicion that the airline’s ground service costs played a major role in the decision, which was never officially explained by the company.

Ground service costs for Southwest are about 60 higher than others at SRQ due to a contract with the carrier’s union that forces the airline to use only Southwest employees for services like baggage loading or aircraft cleaning.

At Tampa, which runs more Southwest flights, the company can spread those expenses out. It can’t justify an inhouse grounds crew at SRQ, airline officials said.

Every other airline at SRQ uses a third-party contractor, including AirTran before the merger.

The ground crew costs, coupled with other economic setbacks, make it highly unlikely local marketing efforts will lure the company back any time soon -- no matter how strong the public outpouring, Southwest spokeswoman Katie McDonald said.

“The decision is final for the foreseeable future,” she said. “We never say never, and it’s not set in stone for eternity, but we’re just not going to reverse this decision right now.”

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

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