IT’S ALWAYS A GOOD DAY AT SARASOTA-BRADENTON INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT when Rick Piccolo can announce new air service. What may be a bigger deal is finally getting traffic levels in and out of SRQ to the levels they were before a major airline left the airport in 2012. Piccolo in September announced Elite Airways would soon lift passengers from Sarasota to Portland, Maine, marking the arrival of a seventh carrier at the Gulf Coast’s largest airport. With Elite’s arrival, the airport was back on track to move 1.25 million passenger flights a year, traffic not seen at SRQ Airport since Southwest controversially pulled all AirTran traffic from this market five years ago. “It shows that we have been resilient, and it shows the strength of this destination,” Piccolo says. The airport couldn’t quite reach that 1.25 million threshold in 2016; come the end of December, the airport served 1.18 million passenger flights, a 2.8 percent decline in traffic from 2015. But the new service means that in 2017, the airport will likely see 2012 levels of travelers pass through.

It’s been a hard road back. Southwest’s 2012 announcement that it would cancel AirTran service in 15 smaller markets, including Sarasota-Bradenton, delivered a devastating blow locally. The single airline represented 38 percent of traffic in and out of SRQ at the time. The change prompted a massive “Do You SRQ” marketing campaign at the airport, encouraging frequent flyers in the region to use the Sarasota airport whenever possible for flights—and explicitly discouraging them from using Southwest even when they had to drive to other airports to get where they needed to go.

But airport leaders have been tenacious in the years since in reaching out to other airlines to open new routes. Carriers like Elite and WestJet have now started new flights in and out of Sarasota, and United reconnected such major routes as non-stop service between Sarasota and Chicago O’Hare. New markets get served today, including Newark in New Jersey and LaGuardia in New York. Existing carriers like JetBlue have boosted their number of flights. In the meantime, the airport in August 2014 retired all of its debt and hosted a ceremony where a 25-year mortgage note, covering the $150 million cost of building the airport, was burned. And since significant renovations of the airport were also completed recently, Piccolo says there’s no reason to expect any more debt to be incurred anytime soon. “As we look forward, things are moving in the right direction,” he says. “And we were able to do all that in the midst of the greatest recession since the Great Depression.”

Balloons wrapped the gate at SRQ in November as the airport celebrated the arrival of the first Elite flight into Sarasota. Elite Airways President John Pearsall called the new flights the “first step in a long and prosperous partnership.”