Knowing that AirTran is set to end service in August, SRQ Airport officials are launching a campaign to keep passengers flying out of SRQ instead of Tampa or Ft. Myers.
"It's not a lack of passengers going on aircraft that has hurt this community," said Rick Piccolo, president and chief executive of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. "It really is a level of competition. It's also the level of support of people willing to go to other airports."
Piccolo announced a $130,000 campaign called "Do You SRQ?" where the airport hopes to have businesses and individuals pledge that they will check flight options first from SRQ when planning business travel.
The program touts that the airport contributes nearly $1 billion to the annual economic impact, no toll roads to get to the airport, convenient parking and not having to stand in security lines and baggage check for two hours.
The airport loses 1 million trips to Tampa, followed by 237,000 trips out of Ft. Myers' Southwest Florida International Airport and 125,000 trips out of Orlando International Airport. That adds up to $4.5 million in local sales taxes for flights and $756,000 in sales tax from car rental gas purchases, according to an airport study.
This program aims to reduce the "leakage" by 3 to 8 percent annually during the next five years.
A big part of the pledge is if a passenger can't find a flight to their destination, they will fly on a carrier that serves SRQ.
Essentially, the pledge targets both Tampa International Airport and Southwest Airlines, which is shedding the AirTran name and rolling it into their Southwest badging and operations.
And Piccolo is not shying away from that.
"With the decision of Southwest going up to Tampa, what they have said to the local community is, 'We can get your business without supporting your community. We can get your business without generating jobs here We can actually take jobs away. We can take tax revenue away from you. We can take economic impact away from you and you will still support us,'" Piccolo said.
The average SRQ round trip ticket costs $27.54 more than Tampa International, according to an airport study, but Piccolo boasts the "price premium" at Sarasota International for the good service. And $20 of that is for hub taxes to land at a connecting destination, he explained.
"It keeps a good level of air service here because our carriers make money, our carriers are profitable. Even AirTran was profitable by the way, here. [The loss of AirTran] is a change in model when Southwest acquired them," Piccolo said.
The "leakiest" destinations for folks to choose another airport in the Sarasota-Tampa area are Chicago, New York, Boston, Piccolo said.
Right now, JetBlue, Delta, U.S. Airways and United/Continental serve domestic flights and the airport is making up for Air Tran in Chicago and New York, but still has a gap in the Midwest and at Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport, which is a major hub for Southwest.
That will seem to leave Orioles fans in Maryland wanting to come to Sarasota for Spring Training the option to either fly into Tampa, or if they want to stay with SRQ Airport, fight car traffic on one of the nation's busiest and most congested corridors from Baltimore into Washington hoping they can make their flight at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on U.S. Airways. Piccolo admits because Southwest's presence at that airport it would be difficult to pull off.
"We're trying very hard to find replacement for those, but it's a difficult one because Southwest has such a large hold on that location," Piccolo said. Southwest is also a longtime predominant advertiser in Oriole Park at Camden Yards and on Orioles broadcast. How that relationship could effect marketing for Spring Training flights to Sarasota is unknown.
One option is to offer direct service to Baltimore without having to change planes at the layover destination, he added.
"If we're not going to get non-stop service, we're at least trying to get direct service," he said. Currently on direct flights to BWI, AirTran passengers had to change planes in Atlanta.
JetBlue or other SRQ carriers like Delta, U.S. Airways or United could be options as all offer flights originating from BWI.
What seems to be a better bet is for Pirates and Marauders fans. SRQ airport will target Pittsburgh Pirates fans who want to come to Bradenton for Spring Training, Piccolo said, exploring direct or non-stop service to the Steel City.
Bringing that Bradenton connection should help attracting more Manatee County residents to the airport. An airport survey showed that less than 80 percent of Manatee residents considered SRQ as their home airport where about 88 percent of Sarasota County residents consider SRQ Airport their home airport.
The key in getting service that customers will pay for is offering non-stop service, Piccolo explained.
"We'd like to get more Midwestern service," Piccolo said. "With United, we're looking at things like Newark, and we're really going after some Western service."
That plays into the leakage strategy as one study showed the airport that it loses 100,000 passengers to Tampa International for destinations to the West.
The airport also submitted an application for the federal Small Community Air Service Development grant program that would pay $500,000 to support a new westbound service, he added.
If that would be approved, Piccolo the airport's options include one of the following:
• United could service Houston,
• American Airlines to fly into Dallas
• Delta to Salt Lake City
• Frontier Airlines to Denver
Piccolo had ranked the service to Houston first followed by flights to Dallas.
"We had good service to Indianapolis and Milwaukee on AirTran — good Midwestern towns that hopefully find some other places, too," Piccolo said.
The airport is flashing incentives to carriers such as an offer of up to $615,000 for single, daily service in marketing and fee abatements.
"An airline can absolutely operate here for a year, virtually for free," Piccolo said. "You can't get any cheaper than free."
Another strategy to boost flight inventory for SRQ, Piccolo said, is to offer direct flights to destinations where changing carriers wouldn't be necessary, but instead, just changing planes.
That comes in the form of talks with Silver Airways to provide a charter-type service to Ft. Lauderdale, the Florida Keys and Miami using 19-seat beach crafts and 34-seat Saabs, Piccolo said. Silver was formerly called Gulfstream International Airlines. Silver is a Star Alliance member, putting it into the network of United for flight booking.
"They hub in Ft. Lauderdale and do a lot of island flying as well," Piccolo said. "We have had discussions with them about getting service into South Florida, which would hook people down into the islands and ultimately in Miami and would get them a gateway into South America."
Silver also claims Tampa International as a hub, according to its website.
Do you want to pledge to SRQ? E-mail email@example.com for more info or print out the PDF above and mail to the address printed on the form.
Other SRQ Airport Stories:
- JetBlue's SRQ To LaGuardia Service Starts Monday
- SRQ Adds Nonstop Delta Flights To LaGuardia
- United to Add Daily Flight from Sarasota to Chicago
- JetBlue Adds Daily Flights From SRQ To New York
- AirTran to End Service to Sarasota Airport
- TSA Conducts Car Search at SRQ
- SRQ Angles for More Airlines