After big downturn in spring, resulting from pandemic, SRQ airport’s passenger count in October well above national average

CEO Piccolo tells county’s Tourist Development Council about trends before COVID-19 struck and outlook for 2021

Image courtesy Sarasota County

Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport was on target to serve more than 2 million passengers this year, and then the COVID-19 pandemic began, Frederick “Rick” Piccolo, president and CEO of the airport, told members of the Sarasota County Tourist Development (TDC) Council on Dec. 10.

Passenger traffic in March was predicted to exceed 300,000, he pointed out. However, the count that month ended up at 153,246, down 34.1%, compared to the figure for March 2019.

“April was pretty dismal,” he continued, with fewer than 10,000 passengers.

Moreover, Piccolo said, he would walk out to the parking lot in April and see only about 25 cars in the 1,700 spaces.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported a 95% reduction in passenger traffic across the nation in April, he added, compared to the figure for April 2019.

“At that time,” Piccolo said, “no one knew how long [the downturn] would last … Airlines removed about 30% of their total fleet from active service.”

This graph shows the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on air travel. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Further, he noted, the number of commercial flights nationwide dropped from about 111,000 per day in early January to fewer than 31,000 by the first part of April.

Yet, because SRQ airport retired its debt in 2014, it completed a four-year, $20-million renovation of its terminal in 2016 on a pay-as-you-go basis, and it charges lower fees to airlines than a number of its competitors, Piccolo said, it is positioned well to survive the pandemic.

“The terminal’s in wonderful shape.”

Whereas Tampa International’s cost per passenger is going up 122% this year, he added, SRQ’s expense per passenger will climb only about 7%.

In 2019, Sarasota-Bradenton International — SRQ — was “the fastest growing airport in the country” among those serving more than 500,000 passengers a year, Piccolo pointed out. Its passenger count grew 43% from 2018 to 2019, he noted.

In 2019, he continued, “All of our airlines actually experienced capacity growth,” even though the news media put the focus on Allegiant.

Three other airlines have joined Allegiant in serving SRQ since March 2018, he noted: Frontier, Sun Country and, most recently, Southwest. Those and the other airlines already flying out of SRQ have added 38 more routes, serving 30 new destinations, since March 2018, Piccolo added. He characterized that as “a tremendous amount of growth.”

This graphic shows details about expectations for air travel through SRQ in February 2021. Image courtesy Sarasota County

By February 2021, he continued, SRQ will have 10 airlines providing nonstop service to 40 destinations.

Allegiant flew 124,806 passengers out of SRQ in the 2019 fiscal year, Piccolo said, with American in second place and United in third, transporting 50,889 and 45,558 passengers, respectively.

Thanks to its healthy financial situation, he pointed out, the airport has been able to reduce fees. For example, he noted, in the 2019 fiscal year, SRQ lowered the landing fee for airlines by 50%, and it reduced the gate use fee by $170 per turn. “This year, we’ve reduced all our fees anywhere from 3% to 25%,” Piccolo pointed out.

The COVID-19 response

In their efforts to help passengers feel safe, Piccolo said that all airlines are requiring passengers to wear masks. Otherwise, a person cannot board an aircraft, he emphasized. In fact, he continued, an air carrier will record the name of any person who had bought a ticket on a flight and then refused to wear a mask, so the airline would ensure the person could not buy another ticket at a later date. Some of the air carriers are even sharing those names with their competitors, Piccolo noted.

At this time, he continued, most airlines are allowing planes to fill to a higher capacity. However, he added, if they reach a certain level for a specific flight — 75% or 85%, for examples — the airlines will let passengers with tickets for those flights know about the status and give them the option of switching flights without paying extra fees.

This graphic shows steps being taken to promote passenger safety during the pandemic. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Airlines also have installed HEPA filtration systems that exchange the cabin air every 2 to 3 minutes. “That’s more than you’ll see in this building,” he told the TDC members, who were meeting in the Commission Chambers of the County Administration Center on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota.

Further, the TSA has implemented a special cleaning regimen that takes place at night, he said. TSA personnel also wear masks, along with shields and gloves, he noted.

At the airport, Piccolo continued, 80 sneeze shields were installed at gates and car rental desks, among other places. Hand sanitizer stations also are widely available in the terminal, he pointed out.

“We have a lot of signage and queuing-up marks in lines,” he said, to promote social distancing. “We also doubled the janitorial workforce.” The airport also has doubled its expense for those employees, he said — from about $600,000 a year to approximately $1.2 million a year.

All SRQ employees must wear masks, he continued, and all airline employees must undergo temperature checks each morning when they arrive for work.

This graphic shows more details about how the pandemic has affected the airport. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Further, the SRQ Airport Authority board agreed to a $250,000 contract to convert restroom facilities to touchless operations, including the soap and hand towel dispensers.

“Now we’re on the road to recovery,” Piccolo said. Passenger traffic in October, he noted, was 69% of the 2019 count, whereas as nationwide, the passenger traffic was at 45% of the 2019 level for that month.

He had just received the SRQ passenger data for November, he continued. That showed the total number of passengers was about 60% of the November 2019 figure.

Additionally, the number of cars in the parking lot has risen to a range between 500 and 800 per day, he said.

One reason SRQ has been more successful in its recovery, Piccolo noted, is the fact that people have been attracted much more to outdoor activities during the pandemic. “This is a perfect place to go,” he added of Sarasota.

The beaches and ecotourism are not the only draws, he said. “Obviously, golf is a big attraction as well, with over 300 courses in the area.”

Bringing in new service

Piccolo also discussed the recruiting of new service to SRQ. Representatives of the airlines, he said, “are very impressed with what we have to show them.”

“I want to pay a particular compliment to Virginia [Haley, president of the county’s tourism office, Visit Sarasota County],” Piccolo continued, along with her counterpart in Manatee County, Elliott Falcione, who heads up the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

This graphic provides details about passenger traffic and airline incentives at SRQ. Image courtesy Sarasota County

SRQ’s partnerships with the Sarasota and Manatee county tourism agencies “were critical,” Piccolo said, in winning Allegiant’s agreement to start serving SRQ. Haley and Falcione, along with economic development leaders from the two counties, also assisted SRQ representatives with their pitch to Southwest, he pointed out.

“Southwest is doing eight flights a day to start with,” Piccolo noted. Earlier on Dec. 10, he pointed out, the airline had announced that it would add three more. “That is about a million seats a year in and out of this market, just from that one carrier.”

In a Dec. 10 news release, SRQ noted that the three other nonstop routes would serve Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis; and Pittsburgh on Saturdays only, from March 13 through April 10.

Southwest previously announced daily service to Baltimore/Washington, D.C. (BWI); Chicago (MDW); Nashville, Tenn. (BNA); and Houston (HOU).

This graph shows more details about passenger traffic at SRQ. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Piccolo noted that Southwest will begin its daily service on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 2021, which he found fitting, he said, because the company’s stock ticker symbol is LUV.

To entice new carriers to SRQ, Piccolo explained, the airport will waive landing and gate use fees, plus office space rent, for two years, if the airline commits to a certain number of new year-round, daily flights. Moreover, he said, SRQ can offer marketing funding support on its own, plus the aid of Visit Sarasota County and the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Piccolo also pointed out that the passengers SRQ’s airlines brought to the area in 2019 were responsible for approximately $293.4 million in direct visitor spending, based on an economic impact analysis SRQ undertook. Further, he said, more than $8.4 million a year in tax revenue could be attributed to the new and expanded air carrier service at the airport last year.