It’s unlikely that the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport will ever have enough flights — especially direct trips, at low fares, to all the prime destinations — to satisfy all the locals.
The airport’s location alone — between the giant Tampa International and busy Southwest Florida International — makes attracting more flights a challenge. So does the Sarasota-Bradenton area’s status as a market driven by leisure travel, which is not as lucrative for airlines as business travel. Furthermore, consolidation in the airline industry has reduced competition among carriers, giving them less incentive to add service to airports where they don’t have infrastructure.
That said, although passenger counts have not risen to the levels desired, the airport has attracted new carriers and expanded service, especially seasonally, thanks in large part to diligence in recruitment, incentives, reduction of fees and a growing market.
Despite the challenges facing Sarasota-Bradenton and other mid- and small-size airports, there has been significant progress at the facility known as SRQ. A news report by Laura Finaldi, outlining a presentation this week by airport chief executive Fredrick Piccolo, reminded us of just how much progress.
It’s been a long time but old-timers in Sarasota and Manatee counties remember the airport when the terminal was so meager that travelers embarked and disembarked on the tarmac and in the elements. (A lot of folks did appreciate, though, the easy-to-access bar and its outdoor patio that enabled patrons to have a drink and watch takeoffs and landings.)
We also recall the turmoil and furor over airport-related noise, which was exacerbated by the super-discount People’s Express airline that flew older, louder jets at odd hours late at night and early morning. The demise of that airline, the arrival of quieter aircraft and the implementation of routes intended to minimize the impacts of noise improved conditions dramatically.
The framework of the existing terminal was opened in 1989 and the airport’s trajectory then improved with two events: the arrival of Piccolo in 1995, and the decision by voters in Sarasota and Manatee to eliminate the Airport Authority’s status as an elected body. The appointment of authority members has, unfortunately, become a partisan exercise but the change virtually eliminated the political haggling and public turmoil generated by the elected board.
As Piccolo told local business leaders, SRQ has steadily improved the terminal and parking, and diversified its revenue stream by permitting a hotel, trucking business and storage facility on-site. A modern, $27 million air-traffic control tower and a U.S. Customs area have been added and other upgrades made.
All of these additions and improvements have generated economic activity and jobs through planning, construction and purchases. In short, the airport serves as a vital part in the region’s economic engine.
Just as important, the airport is debt-free, has a $24 million cash balance and does not rely on local tax revenue.
This positive news has, unfortunately, been slightly marred by the recent suspension of the airport’s police chief, but we hope that situation will be rectified soon. Nevertheless, it does not overshadow the progress made at SRQ and the airport’s contributions to the two-county region.