SARASOTA COUNTY (WFLA) – AAA is forecasting the 2021 holiday season to be a busy one for travel. Air travel alone is expected to nearly triple over 2020.
Officials at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport say they’re prepared for the holiday travel rush. The airport has faced a series of challenges over the last year as it has seen exponential growth.
“We had record traffic in July of about 326,000 passengers going through here. Last month we did about 320,000 and we expect to be somewhere in that neighborhood again this month. We will break 3.1 million passengers this year. Just a few years ago, we were doing 1.3 million. We have almost tripled the size of what traffic goes through here,” said the airport’s President and CEO Rick Piccolo.
Three years back, SRQ Airport had six airlines and 12 nonstop destinations. “We now have 11 airlines and 53 nonstop destinations. In fact, tomorrow six new destinations start,” Piccolo told us Thursday.
So, how is the airport keeping up with the growth and preparing for the busiest time of the year? Piccolo says capacity is a constant struggle.
“We built 1400 temporary parking spaces for the holidays and all of them were filled so we have about 2100 paved parking spaces and 1400 temporary parking spaces that are not paved. Security screening is another challenge. We have added one lane, we are adding another lane next month. Because we are infrastructure, it is trying to keep up with that growth. I try to equate it to telling people if traffic in your community went up on the roads 150% in a year, no matter how much money you had to build roads, it takes time and that is the same issue for us, it is how fast can we build more infrastructure here,” explained the CEO.
In addition to the parking and added security lane, the airport has brought on 50 new employees over the last six months. Everything from maintenance workers, baggage handling workers, and shuttle drivers.
“We are trying to maintain the level of service we became known for as a very convenient and easy to get through airport while dealing with this kind of tremendous growth that puts a lot of pressure. So most of what we have done is adding a lot more personnel to handle it,” explained Piccolo.
Many travelers we spoke with say the airport is busier than they’ve ever seen it before.
“The airport is too small for the traffic they are trying to do right now. I think they need to open it up some more. I think they need to get more lanes in here, but I guess we will see,” said traveler Greg Colombo.
The airport does have plans to expand, but Piccolo says it will take time.
“We are going to add five more gates to the terminal, but that is going to take 18 to 24 months. We have already started the process, but that is two years away. With this tremendous growth, we are trying to solve the problems operationally as fast as we can,” said Piccolo.
For perspective, the airport’s 2020 master plan forecasted passenger levels to reach 3.5 million by 2030. The airport is expecting to near that number this year. “The ink is hardly dry on the master plan and it is outdated,” said Piccolo. “I have been in the airport business 50 years. I’ve never seen growth explosion like this in any place like we have seen here in such a short period of time. To handle almost a tripling of your normal traffic in a couple years time is just unprecedented,” he continued.
Airport officials do not anticipate any major operational delays over the next few weeks as crowds pick up. However, they are encouraging travelers to arrive at the airport two hours early.