Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport has annual economic impact of close to $2 billion, Airport Authority CEO tells Tourist Development Council

Allegiant Airline praised for major role in boosting passenger traffic

Maps show the increase in markets being served by airlines flying out of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. Even more routes have been added since the map was created, Fredrick ‘Rick’ Piccolo, president and CEO of the airport, has pointed out. Image courtesy of the SRQ Airport Authority

Thanks to the rapid growth in airline routes at the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport (SRQ), a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) study completed about eight months ago showed the airport had an annual economic impact of more than $1.3 billion on the community, Fredrick “Rick” Piccolo, president and CEO of the airport, has reported.

That study took a look at all 20 airports with commercial service in Florida, he told members of the Sarasota County Tourist Development Council (TDC) during their regular meeting on Sept. 19.

However, Piccolo pointed out, SRQ has continued to add new routes since that state analysis was completed. As a result, the Airport Authority commissioned a follow-up study focused just on that new service; it was released in May, reflecting carriers flying to 28 cities.

The total economic impact of the new routes in that May study, Piccolo said, was about $309 million. That would raise the figure in the FDOT report to approximately $1.65 billion, he added.

However, Piccolo continued, “We are at 38 cities.  … We are growing so fast.” Another study already is needed, he said.

A graphic shows trends in passenger traffic through SRQ. Image courtesy of the SRQ Airport Authority

Given the 10 extra routes announced since the May report was released, he estimated the total economic impact on the community at nearly $2 billion a year.

A Sept. 13 press release from the Airport Authority noted that, through August, year-to-date passenger traffic was up 40%.

The airport set an all-time record for the month of August, the release added, with 135,467 travelers having flown through SRQ. That figure was 38% higher than the passenger number for August 2018.

“I’ll go out on a limb and say we’re probably the fastest growing airport in the United States,” Piccolo told the TDC members on Sept. 19.

Allegiant Airline is the reason for the rapid expansion, he stressed, noting that SRQ has seen double-digit growth for 17 consecutive months. “The last four months have set records for the highest amount of passenger traffic in the history [of the airport].”

In 1990, Piccolo pointed out, SRQ hit the 2-million passenger mark. “We had fallen to about 1.1 million,” he said, as a result of the Great Recession. “We fully expect to exceed [2 million passengers] next year.”

Allegiant’s share of the airport’s economic impact, based on the most recent study, he continued, is about $138 million, with more than 209,000 passengers flying on that airline.

A graphic provides details about Allegiant’s service through SRQ. Image courtesy of the SRQ Airport Authority

The second-highest level of economic impact from carriers at SRQ comes from United Airlines, he said: approximately $62.7 million.

American is in third place, with about $58 million.

Delta, Piccolo noted, “has been a long-term partner here at the airport. … [It has] been here through thick and thin.”

For the first time ever, he emphasized, Allegiant in December will have more seats serving SRQ’s markets than Delta. That just shows how fast Allegiant is growing, Piccolo said.

From 2009 to 2012, he told the TDC members, growth in passenger traffic at SRQ “was kind of steady.” Then AirTran left in August 2012, he noted. “We kind of went up and down a little bit for a number of years.”

In April 2018, Allegiant announced that it would begin nonstop service to three cities from Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport: Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.

Now the airline is serving about 20 cities, Piccolo pointed out to the TDC members.

“Suddenly, after Allegiant showed up,” Piccolo noted, other airlines serving SRQ “got religion” and began adding more routes.

For example: On July 16, SRQ announced that Frontier Airlines’ new nonstop service to Trenton, N.J., would mark the airport’s 30th destination.

Return on investment

Piccolo pointed to the return on investment of the marketing funds Sarasota County provides to its tourism agency — Visit Sarasota County (VSC) — to entice people to travel through SRQ. (The funds come out of the Tourist Development Tax — or “bed tax” — revenue collected from accommodations in the county.)

“Your return on investment is off the charts,” Piccolo stressed.

“All the things you invest in combined are nowhere near the economic impact that we have,” he told the TDC members.

A graphic shows details about the growth in service of all the airlines serving SRQ. Image courtesy of the SRQ Airport Authority

Other members of the community, such as the Baltimore Orioles — which conduct Spring Training in Sarasota; arts and cultural events; and national and international rowing events at Nathan Benderson Park, for examples, have a return on investment “in the tens of millions [of dollars],” Piccolo said, compared to close to $2 billion from SRQ.

Moreover, he continued, Sarasota County benefits from collections of other taxes as a result of airport operations. The latest figure for that impact just from the new routes is $8.5 million, he noted.

In response to a question from TDC member and Sarasota City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie, Piccolo said that about 1,000 more jobs had been created over the past two years as a result of the airport’s activities.

Expression of gratitude from Allegiant

Following his presentation, Piccolo introduced Bud Hafer, manager of airport affairs for Allegiant.

Bud Haver of Allegiant. Image via Twitter

“I did fly specifically just for this meeting, mostly just to give you thanks,” Hafer told the TDC members. Going from no service at SRQ to 20 routes by the end of this year “is a hugestep,” he added.

“We decided to be here in part because of the airport and all of the support” it receives from the county in terms of marketing, he continued. Working with Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, and her team, he said, “has just been incredible. They know what they’re doing. They know their markets.”

As the airline has added routes from SRQ, Hafer pointed out, “Everything … so far has been doing well.”

“Thank you for taking the time to address us,” Commissioner Charles Hines, who chairs the TDC, told Hafer.

In response to questions posed by TDC member John Zaccari, CEO of A2Z Hospitality Management Co., Hafer explained, “We try to fly when it’s the peak demand.” Generally, he continued,
Allegiant schedules two days of service each week through SRQ. “Sometimes Wednesday/Saturday is better than Thursday/Sunday or Friday/Monday.”

Much of the airline’s focus, Hafer added, is on inbound tourists. “We’ve noticed that people will alter their travel plans for leisure based on days of the week,” he said, whereas business travelers have less flexibility.

Visit Sarasota County also provides Allegiant data about travel and migration patterns, he noted, which assists the airline’s staff in making decisions about service.

A graphic shows more details about the economic impact of the new service at SRQ, as of May. Image courtesy of the SRQ Airport Authority

For example, Hafer pointed out, VSC data may show more people moving to Sarasota County from Pittsburgh or Baltimore, so that has an impact on routes.

Another TDC member, Jill Luke, a North Port city commissioner, told Hafer, “I love Allegiant.”

About five years ago, she said, she served on a VSC marketing committee. At that time, Luke continued, Allegiant had just started its service out of Punta Gorda. Luke said she told Haley, “‘SRQ needs Allegiant.’”

“I feel vindicated to see your success and to see what is going on for SRQ,” Luke added. “I couldn’t be prouder of you guys.”