Onward and Upward
Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport CEO On How Even A Pandemic Didn’t Slow Record Growth And Plans For Bright Future
By Melanie Bass
In a November 2021 quarterly assessment, the Airports Council International (ACI) World outlined the economic impact of COVID-19 on the global airport business for the past two years and its path to recovery. As expected, the aviation industry was hit hard with passenger numbers falling sharply by more than 50% worldwide, increased safety costs, staffing issues, fuel costs and ever-changing guidelines. Recovery is expected, but it will be slow according to the ACI.
But one airport – Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport (SRQ) – actually grew its passenger numbers, airline and community partners, nonstop destinations and services during the pandemic, and did so at the highest percentage of any airport in the U.S.
“In a global economy a vibrant airport is a critical element for any community’s economic success.”
Rick Piccolo, SRQ’s president and CEO and a chair of the USF Sarasota-Manatee Campus Board, explains how the “mini city” did it and how it is moving forward after COVID-19 with plans to expand its footprint, add new destinations and more. Plans also include building educational facilities and increasing partnerships and programming with the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus – among other partners – to leverage the proximity of SRQ to the campus and support new career pathways for students.
Research: USF Sarasota-Manatee Campus
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QUESTION: You have referred to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport as the “fastest growing airport in the world” – is it still, and what exactly does that mean?
PICCOLO: SRQ has grown at double-digit and triple-digit percentages every year except in 2020. In 2019, SRQ grew at 43%, which was the highest percentage of any airport in the U.S. with the airport handling just under 2 million passengers. In the first three months of 2020, SRQ grew at 53%, which was again the highest percentage of any airport in the U.S. In March 2020, COVID-19 hit, and while traffic declined, SRQ’s recovery was much more robust than most airports in the world. In 2021, SRQ grew at 155% over the COVID-19-impacted 2020 but was also 61% higher than pre-COVID-19 2019 with 3,163,543 passengers using the airport. So far in 2022, SRQ again is up 125% over the record 2021. Most airports are still below their pre-pandemic levels, yet SRQ is well ahead of those levels.
Q:What does this mean for the community as well as the future of aviation in the region?
PICCOLO: There are several positive impacts for the community. First and foremost, it gives our residents a myriad of choices both from a nonstop destination opportunities and pricing standpoint. In 2018, SRQ had six airlines, 12 nonstop destinations and no Ultra Low-Cost Carriers (ULCC). Today, SRQ has 12 airlines and 53 nonstop destinations with five ULCCs. It also has a tremendous economic impact and job creation impact. SRQ has over $2 billion of annual economic impact, and over 12,000 jobs are created by our activities. In a global economy a vibrant airport is a critical element for any community’s economic success.
Q: In the past few years, we have all been dealing with the pandemic and its effects on our lives. How has it impacted the business of SRQ, and, more importantly, what factors have allowed for SRQ to emerge with record growth?
PICCOLO: Our recovery was much more robust due to several factors. As COVID-19 lockdowns across the country and the world were enacted, people began to look for destinations that offered outdoor activities. Our area has some of the best beaches in the world, boating, fishing and numerous golf venues. The governor enacted gradual easing of business restrictions that allowed people to enjoy restaurant and activity venues as well. These factors led to great demand, and airlines began ramping up service to SRQ. Each new service became so successful that other airlines saw this and began entering our market or adding destinations to existing service. Additionally, as virtual work became a norm, individuals realized that they could work from a beautiful, warm-weather location with advantageous tax laws – that spurred added growth and service demand. In addition, SRQ and the two county Convention and Visitors Bureaus (CVB) work in tandem to promote new service. SRQ offers fee-free operations for the first two years of any new airline route and matches dollar for dollar promotional marketing funds of the CVBs. Last year, over $2 million was dedicated to airline service promotions at different inbound cities. This helps to ensure success of the new routes and provides long-term economic return to the airport and the community.
Q: Earlier this year, you mentioned the addition of another airline and even more nonstop destinations by new and existing airlines at SRQ. What airlines and destinations are you hoping to add next?
PICCOLO: We talk to every airline, but domestically there are not many left that we don’t already have. Certainly, Silver Airways, which flies a significant amount of intrastate service, is one we would like to add. We are also pursuing several new Canadian startup airlines and trying to get international charter service from Europe and South America. International services are recovering much slower than domestic service, so those efforts are more long term.
Q: Are Florida destinations (i.e., Tallahassee, Miami, the Keys, etc.) on the table?
PICCOLO: We have been trying to get service to all three of those destinations and hope we can see some success this year.
Q: With this growth, you have been evaluating and implementing facilities, resources and technology. What are some of the changes we can expect to see at SRQ in the next year, five years, 10 years?
PICCOLO: Presently over $150 million of capital improvement projects are in various stages and should be completed over the next two to three years. They include a new five-gate, ground-based terminal, expansion of concessions and hold room space in the existing terminal, a new baggage system for inspecting and processing luggage, a new ground transportation center, a new park-and-ride facility, a new consolidated rental car service area and a renovated observation area off 15th Street. Longer-term projects include another terminal expansion and parking garage facilities. We also are working with the Manatee and Sarasota County School Systems and USF Sarasota-Manatee on an educational facility. Overall, about half-a-billion dollars of improvements are planned in the next two decades.
Q: What projects are you most excited about?
PICCOLO: The new terminal wing is an exciting project that will increase our capacity and enhance the convenience experience. While the baggage and ground transportation projects are sizable, I’m more excited about the observation area project off 15th Street. Cars currently park in the dirt there and watch the planes take off. This project will put in paved parking, covered seating areas, a small playground, historical pictures and a speaker system so you can hear the Air Traffic Control Tower transmissions. The educational facility efforts we are doing in partnership with the school boards and university have exciting potential as well.
Q: How do SRQ relationships and partnerships within the community and beyond ensure this upward momentum continues?
PICCOLO: We interact with myriad political and regulatory agency leaders at every level. I spend a great deal of time talking with federal, state and local elected officials to review what is happening and what our needs are to ensure they have a good understanding of our structure and impact on the community. I sit on myriad business and community boards to also get our position and message out. I have worked in leadership positions on several charitable and foundation boards to give back to the community. Many staff members do charitable and community work as well. We also work very closely with the Convention and Visitors Bureaus to ensure success of new services. In addition, I average about three to five speaking engagements a month to inform community groups about what is going on at the airport and our positive impact on the community.
Q: Speaking of partnerships, there are plans to expand aviation educational facilities at the airport?
PICCOLO: There are two major educational efforts here at SRQ. First, there is a K-12 charter school being constructed on airport property just across from the airfield off 15th Street. This charter school is 97% minority and 83% economically challenged children. It will have an aviation theme and expose children to career fields in our industry. It is the first of its kind on airport land in the U.S., and we are very excited about the exposure it will give to these children. The second facility is an Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) mechanics school that is being developed on the airfield, which will also offer university-level aviation education courses. This project will allow high school graduates to go to the A&P school and get licensed as an airplane mechanic in about 18 months. The average starting salary is around $65,000 and offers employment opportunities worldwide.
Q: What type of jobs and workforce do you anticipate SRQ needing in the immediate future? Ten years down the road?
PICCOLO: People tend to think of airport jobs only in the context of pilots and flight attendants. Airports offer a wide range of professions such as accounting, information technology, logistics, all the skilled trades, police, firefighting and sales. There are jobs in hospitality, airline services and retail as well. Information technology is becoming more and more important as we go forward, and the demand for pilots and mechanics will continue to grow exponentially.
Q: How can the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus and SRQ work together to provide that talent pipeline for the airport?
PICCOLO: Many of the programs at USF Sarasota-Manatee provide training in all areas utilized at the airport. SRQ is a bit of a “mini city,” so the training students receive at USF Sarasota-Manatee offers myriad possibilities at the airport. Students should consider either full- or part-time employment during their schooling, which is right across the street. This will give them practical experience and open opportunities in the aviation field in the future.
Q: You obviously have a lot to be optimistic about when it comes to the future of SRQ – what keeps you up at night?
PICCOLO: Public safety concerns are always top of mind. SRQ has its own police force and fire department, as well as working with the Transportation Security Administration and other federal and state police agencies on counterterrorism threats. Additionally, meeting the capacity needs for the future in an expeditious manner given our unprecedented growth is a significant challenge, whether it’s capital construction projects or meeting workforce staffing needs.