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Airport News, "Florida airport fights loss of airlines, flights"



Friday, January 5, 2001

Local airport fights loss of airlines, flights
Sarasota-Bradenton International is extending its runway, waiving fees and
enhancing marketing to gain firms' attention.
By DUANE MARSTELLER
Bradenton (FL) Herald


MANATEE - It's going to take persistence and patience to reverse
Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport's recent trend of losing airlines
and flights, airport officials said.

Despite reducing airlines' operating costs and offering incentives, the
airport has seen two airlines pull out and several others reduce service
since September.

But airport officials are confident their lobbying efforts - combined with
the area's population growth, proposed airport improvements and constraints
at other airports - will attract more flights to Sarasota-Bradenton.

"I think we'll be lucky to hold onto what we've got now through the next
couple of years," said Jack Rynerson, a member of the Sarasota-Manatee
Airport Authority, which operates the airport. "But after that, the sun's
going to shine a little brighter on our airport."

Dark clouds first appeared in September, when TWA pulled out after offering
daily service to its St. Louis hub for 13 years. Then U.S. Airways did not
bring back its traditional fourth flight to Charlotte, N.C. for the winter
season, and Continental did not resume service to Houston or add a second
flight to Newark, N.J. for the winter season as it has in the past.

The latest blow came earlier this week, when Southeast Airlines said it
would pull out Sunday after three months at the airport because of low
passenger demand for its flights to Atlanta.

The airport had little say in those airlines' decisions, said Fred Piccolo,
the airport's director. TWA dropped its Sarasota flight to expand its
Washington, D.C.-to-Los Angeles service, and Southeast suffered from a lack
of name recognition and limited service, he said.

"The airlines control the system," Piccolo said. "Most of it is out of our
control. All we can worry about are those things that are under our
control."

Among those are airlines' cost to operate at Sarasota-Bradenton, which has
dropped from $10.42 per passenger in 1996 to $6.97 per passenger this year,
he said. Also, the airport has been offering to waive fees it charges
airlines if they offer new flights under certain conditions.

Just one airline has taken up the airport on its offer: Florida Air, which
plans to start commuter service to six Florida cities Feb. 1. But Piccolo
said the incentive program alone won't persuade airlines to come to
Sarasota-Bradenton because airport fees account for less than 5 percent of
the cost to operate a flight.

What will work is constant lobbying of airline officials, said Piccolo, who
said he courts several airlines on at least a monthly basis.

"We call it the pest factor," he said. "The key is to stay in their face and
let them know we're here."

The airport also is in good position to take advantage of a projected boom
in airline travel, officials said. The Florida Department of Transportation
predicts the number of passengers boarding planes at Florida airports will
jump from 54.4 million last year to 121 million in 2020.

Some of that increase will have to come to Sarasota-Bradenton as Tampa
International Airport becomes more congested, local airport officials said.
The Tampa airport draws about 1 million people a year from
Sarasota-Bradenton's market, but has little room to expand.

"We're going to get overflow by default," said Dr. Stephen Peirce, another
authority member. "It may take ten or 15 years for that to happen, but it
will happen."

A longer runway also will make Sarasota-Bradenton more attractive, airport
officials said. Work to extend the main runway by 2,500 feet is expected to
start later this year and take about two years to complete.

The longer runway will allow planes with more passengers and fuel to use
Sarasota-Bradenton, making it more cost-efficient for airlines and allowing
them to offer service to cities that are farther away, airport officials
said.

But airlines won't stay if passengers aren't there, so the airport plans to
become more aggressive in marketing itself. The airport recently tripled its
marketing budget to $300,000 and plans to hire an advertising agency to
promote the airport and its airline service.

Those steps should help the airport better compete with the larger ones,
Piccolo said.

"We're like a convenience store," he said. "We're close by, but we don't
have nine different kinds of cereal like a Winn Dixie does. I think over
time, as our market gets bigger, we'll expand and get bigger, and our store
will be as big as the Winn Dixie."

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