Passenger traffic was already on the rise at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport at the start of 2020, but the coronavirus changed everything. COVID-19 impacted all sectors of the economy, but travel took a particular blow. At an airport that saw just under 2 million passenger flights in 2019, traffic in April of 2020 dropped to less than 10,000 passengers, the bulk of those leaving town.

“The thought was how do we get through that?” recalls SRQ airport CEO Fredrick Piccolo. “How can we cut back as much as possible?” But that was then. Less than two years later, there’s greater traffic than ever before. Airlines who stopped flights to Sarasota years ago have once again charted courses to the landing strips at SRQ. A new terminal is under construction as part of a $60-million expansion and Sarasota has become the envy of the aviation universe. “The growth at SRQ has been phenomenal,” Piccolo said. “We’re the fastest growing airport in the United States, if not in the world. Traffic is up 150% over last year, and yes it was a COVID year, but for us, the numbers didn’t really go down.” Well, a close look at the numbers does show total traffic dropped from 1.96 million passenger flights in 2019 to 1.24 million in 2020, but that type of decline is nothing compared to what many airports around the globe suffered. While SRQ traffic declined 37%, traffic in and out of Atlanta International Airport declined by almost 43%. At the Miami International Airport, it dropped 59%.

Regardless, by the time 2021 began, the airport remained healthy with steady growth in flights. Not a single employee of the airport was ever laid off — private airlines don’t disclose their location-specific layoffs — but Piccolo had airlines calling about how to add routes into the facility. In September, the airport surpassed 2 million passenger flights for the year for the first time in its history with three months of travelers yet to lift off. Piccolo recalls that just three years ago, the airport felt comfortable closing the year with just under 1.4 million passenger flights. Now the airport executive in November was hoping to reach 2.5 million passengers through the airport before the end of the calendar year. So what spurred this? Piccolo said it’s hard to ignore Florida’s statewide policies in response to the pandemic. While Florida, like many states, entered a month-down lockdown in the spring of 2020, it quickly began a reopening process. Governor Ron DeSantis in September of 2020 announced a major marketing campaign funded through Visit Florida to encourage in-state travel, and the policies of Florida were highly publicized in national media as far less limited than other states. While DeSantis withered criticism from public health advocates on national airwaves, business leaders in a state where tourism serves as the number 1 industry heralded the move.

 Looking back at a monumental year, SRQ airport CEO Fredrick Piccolo looks forward to continued success for the country’s fastest growing airport.


Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota, said this market benefitted as well because so many amenities here are outdoors. From beaches to popular kayaking routes, eco-tourism became more popular than ever as travelers sought ways to get out of their homes without going to destinations with indoor entertainment, environments more at risk of seeing virus infections spread. Piccolo said that spurred a spike in recreational tourism. “In the early socially distanced days, we had plenty of beaches, golf, fishing, just a lot of outdoor activities. The fact that the Governor kept our state open brought huge economic activity. And as you and I both know, this place is wonderful. This place is paradise.” But what’s most shocking about the growth at SRQ airport is that it has exceeded the expansions happening anywhere in Florida or beyond. That has to do with the type of travel the airport relies on now more than ever. The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association announced that the tourism industry in Florida expected to see a $5.3 billion loss in business travel for 2021, which has delivered consequences across the state even as recreational travel returned to Florida in force the same year. That loss in business conventions and trips represents the second largest loss in the nation.

“Sarasota is a little different than many areas of the state because it has always been dominated by leisure travel,” Haley said. From October 2020 through September, Sarasota County collected $27.6 million in tourist development taxes, a record amount for a fiscal year. That happened even as large convention spaces remained vacant because hotel swimming pools still brimmed with families on vacation. So can this last? Piccolo predicts that at some point, recreational travel will level off. Pent up demand from the lockdown days will taper. Family gatherings put off for a year will take place and a normal level of recreational visitors will return. Hopefully, business travel will also come back up to regular levels. There’s already some sign of that with hybrid conventions booking space and more business travelers relishing the chance to network in person again.

A ban on international travel, one of the longest-lasting restrictions of the pandemic era, finally lifted in early November. Visitors from outside the United States have historically made up 10% of travelers to the airport, so the airport feels excited to bring its customs inspections back up and running. But Piccolo said that won’t be an immediate bounce back. Air Canada, the largest source of international travelers for the airport, won’t start up flights to Sarasota until this fall. “They were originally scheduled to come back in February but customs and borders still isn’t staffing adequately in Toronto,” Piccolo said. But in all honesty, Piccolo said a drop-off in recreational travel won’t necessarily hurt the airport. “It could give us time to breathe,” he said. No one expects another all-stop lockdown like what the country experienced when COVID-19 was still a novel virus. A decline at the moment could help the airport manage and catch up its infrastructure.

Whenever new travel comes in, SRQ airport should be more than ready for it, just as it will soon be able to handle much more domestic travel even than it sees now. The airport has already kicked off a $60 million expansion of facilities, including the construction of an entire new terminal. The Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority in August hired DeAngelis Diamond-Magnum Builders to construct a new concourse. That will be a ground-level passenger terminal with five new gates. The expansion also includes construction of four more temporary parking lots and a new baggage claim and ground check space. That will mean more jobs in the area, even beyond the 40 new jobs added by the airport this year to accommodate the existing travel boom.

Meanwhile, there’s interest from airlines in planning routes and seizing space at the still small airport. And SRQ has a working relationship once again with some private partners once less-than-popular in these parts. Southwest Airlines, for example, has flights in and out of the airport each day. The airline returned to Sarasota in February and now has three gates and 19 nonstop destinations connected to SRQ.

That’s quite a shock considering a decade ago, Piccolo was asking business groups outright not to fly Southwest after the airline shut down AirTran, a subsidy of the airline, at the airport. Piccolo today downplays the acrimony. “I wouldn’t call it bad blood,” he says, “but it was a disappointment.” The decision to shut down AirTran came not long after Southwest-branded flights had stopped service to Sarasota, making for a double-sting that hindered the airport for years. “We didn’t feel it was the right decision at the time.”

That’s the past now, and SRQ boasts good relationships with every major carrier. “We always kept communication lines open,” Piccolo says. It didn’t take much in the last year to convince the unconverted that Sarasota was the place to fly. Now the only problem is finding space for everyone that needs a place to land.