5 Questions

By Tom Spousta December 31, 2009

Airport Authority

Rick Piccolo is in his 15th year as president and CEO of Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, and was recently named Airport Revenue News magazine’s 2009 Director of the Year in the small airports category. While the airport doesn’t receive any taxes to support its $22 million annual budget, Piccolo has managed to put $20 million in reserves during his tenure. The airport owed about $100 million when he took the reins; it now owes $15 million and should be debt-free in three years or so.

Did you think you’d be here this long? I thought I’d be here five years, which is probably the average life span of a director at most airports. At the time, we had an elected board with an infamous reputation in the aviation industry as being very, very difficult to deal with, as I can attest to. But it changed in 2000 to the appointed board, and it is much more businesslike. It understands the entrepreneurial mission of the airport and the fact we don’t have any taxing power and can really make decisions based on financial considerations. We are very close to what private industry models are, and that’s made doing business and my job as a director much better, without the level of political intrigue.

The airport derives income from multiple sideline businesses surrounding it. How has that affected overall revenue? We needed to find activities that weren’t related to airline activities. We went from about $200,000 a year in non-airline-related revenue to about $2.5 million a year. So as airline activity goes up and down like it does all the time, it allowed us to flatten out some of our valleys and made it easier to make it through the recession in the early 2000s, the fuel crisis when oil was $150 a barrel and even through this big recession. We’ve made a surplus every year in the 15 years I’ve been here except in 2001, when there was 9/11.

Will we ever be able to compete more vigorously with Tampa International Airport?  The airport will probably be in the niche it’s in, but it’s hard to predict where our industry goes. Pump about two million more people into our tri-county area and we’ll have it. The airport doesn’t drive the traffic; the market drives the traffic. We have a great airport that can serve a lot of consumer needs, but I’m realistic enough to know that we can’t serve all their needs all the time. I just ask people to understand that for the size community we have, they have a great level of service.

What’s the prognosis for passenger growth? It all depends on the economy. We’ve had growth the past couple months, but it’s going to be slow. Hopefully in a five-year period we can get back to where we were in the mid-1990s, when we had 1.8 million to 2 million passengers. Right now we’re about 1.3 million. Unless something changes in the world’s economic condition, I don’t see a fast recovery.

Do you see any new airlines coming here or expanded service by existing airlines? We are trying to make inroads into Europe. The U.K., Germany, the Netherlands are areas we can grow. We’ve come very close a couple times to landing an international charter. I think that’s a place where we will succeed in the next five years and become a more internationalized destination.

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