With a new passenger record expected this year, Sarasota Bradenton International Airport planning multiple projects to provide better service to customers

More parking and a new ground terminal in the works

This is a chart that Rick Piccolo showed the Tourist Development Council members on June 9. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In the first six months of this year, the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport (SRQ) is expected to “easily pass” the 2-million passenger count it recorded in the first six months of 2021, airport President and CEO Frederick “Rick” Piccolo told members of Sarasota County’s Tourist Development Council (TDC) during a June 9 presentation.

Although he did not have May’s passenger total as of that day, Piccolo added, the airport had recorded “nearly 1.5 million passengers” since the start of 2022. In fact, he said, that figure is up 71%, compared to the number for the first four months of 2021. In April, he added, the passenger count was 386,000, which marked a 31% increase from the figure for April 2021. (See the related article in this issue.)

Last year, “Things just went crazy,” he said, as Southwest began serving SRQ. The total number of passengers served was almost 3.2 million. That broke the record set in 1992, he added, which was “just over 2 million passengers.”

By the time 2022 ends, he continued, he expects the total passenger count to be 3.5 million to 3.6 million.

In 2018, before Allegiant began flying out of Sarasota, Piccolo said, SRQ served about 1.4 million passengers a year. Then, in 2019, with Allegiant, the passenger count climbed 53%, compared to 2018, Piccolo noted. Even after the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, he said, SRQ ended up that year with a passenger total that was slightly higher than 1.2 million. “We were recovering much faster than most airports in the country.”

In fact, Piccolo said, SRQ’s final passenger count in 2020 was down only about 33%, compared to the figure for 2019.

This map shows the cities being served by SRQ Airport’s airlines. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“We believe the growth is here to stay,” he pointed out, noting that SRQ has what are known as “long-term signatory leases” with six of its airlines, he said: Delta, American, United, JetBlue, Southwest and Allegiant. Although airlines can break those leases, he explained, it is expensive for them to do so — and airport staff has seen no indication that any of them would consider doing so.

Airport staff is in negotiations with a couple of other airlines, Piccolo noted, and this year, it already has added Avelo Airlines and Breeze Airways. The latter was started by the founder of JetBlue, he told the TDC members, while Avelo was established by one of the founders of Allegiant. Both Avelo and Breeze have “great capitalization,” he emphasized. Given the “great talent” behind them, Piccolo said, SRQ staff expects both will be expanding.

Better service for fliers

This graphic provides details about parking expansion that has been completed. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In an effort to provide better service for the rising number of travelers, Piccolo explained, the airport has been pursuing a number of construction projects.

The first, he continued, was expansion of the airport’s “fuel farm,” which was completed in November 2021.

Last year, he said, SRQ ran out of fuel some days, so aircraft began coming into the airport with extra fuel as a precaution; however, that increased their weight and caused them to burn more fuel. “That wasn’t advantageous to us as a destination,” Piccolo added.

The new fuel farm has a capacity of 390,000 gallons, he noted. SRQ can go about three days without a fuel delivery, “should there be a disruption in the supply line,” such as a hurricane, Piccolo added.

The next project involved the addition of 140 paved parking spaces to the south end of the long-term lot, he said. Another 204 paved spaces were constructed on what had been the grass overflow area, next to the shade parking lot.

SRQ has 2,100 spaces altogether, he noted. “Unfortunately,” he said, “we need 4,500.” Over the 2021 Thanksgiving holiday period, Piccolo told the TDC members, “We fenced off a piece of our ramp and parked about 500 cars out there.”

Among other changes, he continued, the airport in April 2021 added a fifth lane for Transportation Security Administration (TSA) check-ins, and space is available for a sixth lane, whenever that becomes necessary. Piccolo noted that TSA could have that sixth lane operational in just two days.

Yet another project, which will cost about $10 million, entails the redesign of the Ground Transportation Center, he pointed out.

This shows plans for the new Ground Transportation Center. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A larger staging area will be provided for taxis and limousines, he said, and a new terminal will be created for the Sarasota County and Manatee County transit system buses. The facility also will encompass a new pick-up area for transportation provided by companies such as Lyft and Uber, a slide showed, and a hotel shuttle bus pick-up area will be created.

“Every area there will be covered,” Piccolo added.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is paying half of the expense of that undertaking, he said, with SRQ picking up the remainder.

The groundbreaking for that initiative is expected in early spring of 2023, he noted.

In the area of the west apron, he continued, an expansion and relocation of the employee parking lot will enable SRQ to add three more remote “hardstand spaces” for aircraft.

This graphic offers details about expansion on the West Apron of the airport. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“We are working on a plan,” Piccolo explained, to bus passengers to aircraft on the ground in that area when all of the gates are full.

Yet another initiative, he said, will be a new $4-million customs facility for general aviation traffic on the north side of the airport. It will have eight stations, Piccolo pointed out. That project should get underway next year, with FDOT paying half of its expense, as well.

In 2021, 474 international general aviation flights cleared customs at SRQ, Piccolo said. Already, through late April, 352 have been cleared through the airport.

Moving on through his slides, Piccolo turned to plans for a new observation area on old 15th Street, where the Honeywell building used to stand, he noted. “You’ll always see people sitting there on that curve, watching the aircraft,” he said.

This slide offers information about plans for the new observation area. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The new viewing area will include airport history displays, a playground and even a speaker system, so members of the public can hear air traffic control personnel talking with aircraft crews. The expense of that undertaking will be about $700,000, he said, making it the smallest project SRQ has on tap.

That is a joint project with the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority and Manatee County, he explained.

Then Piccolo addressed more parking plans. Showing the TDC members a graphic, he said that 1,400 new spaces will be added in two areas for park-and-ride purposes. “We hope to break ground by fall,” he added.

Another lot will be paved in the area of University Parkway and Old Bradenton Road. “That’s due to break ground in about two weeks,” Piccolo said, at a cost of $5 million.

In close proximity to that lot, he said, SRQ will spend about $2 million to create what he characterized as a “cell phone lot.” It will have 152 paved spaces, restrooms and a board showing when flights have landed, so drivers waiting there will know when to proceed to the terminal to pick up passengers.

Other plans call for a consolidated rental car facility, where vehicles can be fueled, cleaned and undergo maintenance, Piccolo continued. It also will be close to Old Bradenton Road.

More construction on the horizon

Yet another upcoming initiative is a consolidated baggage system, Piccolo noted. SRQ has three areas where passengers pick up their luggage, he explained. “We have about 20 employees that we keep on staff to move bags by hand,” if necessary, he said, when one of the baggage systems breaks down. “That’s how we have to manage it right now because we’re so busy.”

With the new facility, he continued, “All three machines will be in one area, so if one breaks down,” bags can be diverted to another one, “and we won’t need 20 people humping bags around the terminal on their own.”

That project will take about two years to complete, Piccolo noted, at a cost of $42 million. SRQ will contribute $10 million, he said, with FDOT and TSA picking up the rest of the expense.

Piccolo also talked about the plans to expand the terminal concourse, thanks to the availability of space on Concourse B. More concessions will open, he said, along with a “companion restroom,” a new restaurant, additional up-and-down escalators, and extra seating for passengers.

This rendering shows the north facade of the planned ground-level terminal. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Another project under design is a ground-level terminal with five new boarding gates, Piccolo continued. “The airlines are clamoring to get this done.” The goal, he added, is to have it completed within 24 months. County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and other county staff members, Piccolo said, “have been great to work with” on that.

The ground terminal will be constructed at the very end of the ticketing area, he explained. It will have four TSA security check-in lanes.

Further, a new fixed-base operator facility, a $35-million private investment, will be built at the northern end of the airport, he said.

This rendering shows more details of the ground-level terminal. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In response to a question posed by TDC member Barbara Langdon, a member of the North Port City Commission, Piccolo explained that SRQ does not have the space to expand the runway, “but it’ll suffice for everything that we have.” Two more terminal areas can be developed over time, he continued. “The second phase [of the new ground terminal] connects it to the main terminal,” he noted; that project would be authorized when passenger counts reach the level to make it necessary. That probably would cost $100 million to $150 million, Piccolo told Langdon.

TSA would be able to have 11 lanes, and the airport would have 21 gates, he said. More gates could be created on the west side, he noted, for perhaps a total of 28.

That would allow for the airport to serve 8 million to 9 million passengers, Piccolo said.

One other question came from Sarasota City Commissioner Hagen Brody. “Some folks have asked … if the airport and the planes have changed their approach track recently,” Brody told Piccolo.

This graphic shows the airport grounds and parking areas where new construction is expected. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“The flight patterns are exactly the same now as they were 30 years ago,” Piccolo responded. “The only thing that has changed is that we have a lot more flights now.”

Recently, Piccolo continued, residents of the Glen Oaks neighborhood came up to him after a presentation about the airport’s projects, and he spent “about an hour getting beat up” as they complained about the noise.

After looking at a map, Piccolo said, he determined that “Glen Oaks is 4-and-a-half miles off the extended center line of the runway.” The increase in flights is driving the complaints, Piccolo added.

This map shows the location of Glen Oaks near the Bobby Jones Golf Club. Image from Google Maps

A woman told him the previous day, he said, that she routinely sits out by her pool between 4 and 6 p.m., and she counts as many as 20 jets flying overhead during that period. “It’s the frequency,” he emphasized. “Nothing has changed from a flight path [standpoint].”

Piccolo also explained that as airliners approach the airport, they can descend only 3 degrees at a time. “They can’t act like a fighter jet and dive-bomb. They’ve got to take a very, very safe path.”