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Business Observer Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022 3 months ago

Airport executives race to keep up with post-pandemic travel demand

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Amid construction at RSW and SRQ, execs navigate rising material costs and a shortage of workers in expectation of handling the rush of passengers better.
by: Amanda Postma Sarasota-Manatee Editor

Airport executives from Tampa south to Fort Myers are well-aware of the big changes in their industry post-pandemic, from a dearth of workers to rapidly inclining passenger numbers — a shortage and a surge that's upended many airlines' operating models.

These officials, individually, are approaching the changes with vigor. 

 

Ben Siegel, Southwest Florida International Airport

Air passenger traffic through June at Southwest Florida International Airport, operating under the call letters RSW, is up 17.6% year to date over last year. 

To handle this growth, the airport announced an update to its master plan, along with several new improvement projects. The biggest chunk is a new 16-lane layout of Transportation Security Administration checkpoints. The project will include extra seating, concession spaces and a business lounge. Overall, the $331 million project is expected to remodel 164,000 square feet of existing space and add 117,000 square feet for walkways and concession space. Construction started last October.

It’s expected to “improve the efficiency of the overall operations of the airport,” Lee County Port Authority Executive Director Ben Siegel says. The Port Authority oversees Page Field, in addition to RSW. “We recognized a need for this pre-pandemic.” 

While COVID-19 delayed the project, Siegel says the airport never considered canceling it. And with the current passenger numbers the airport is seeing, it’s a good thing the project, expected to be completed in 2024, is still ongoing. “We’ve recovered so quickly,” he says. “Expectations in travel and growth are unpredictable. We’ve definitely seen a spike during the pandemic.

“I don’t think the double digit growth we’re seeing now is sustainable,” he adds. “Things will normalize, but I think it will be a new normal.” 

Siegel was named executive director of the organization in January 2021, after being interim leader for a little over a year. He is in charge of administration, operations and development at Southwest Florida International Airport and Page Field, the regional reliever airport in Fort Myers. But Siegel isn't a newcomer with the port authority. He's been there since 1992. 

A CPA, Siegel started his career at Cooper & Lybrand in 1990, which eventually merged to form PricewaterhouseCoopers. He soon set his sights on the port authority, being named deputy executive director of administration in 1992. He then led the finance team for more than 27 years.  

That stint eventually led to a big win for the RSW Midfield Terminal Complex — $327 million worth of a win. That turned out to be one of the biggest financing issuances in the county's history. Now Siegel's on the verge of overseeing more seismic changes. “These projects, from an economic standpoint, create thousands of jobs,” he says. “These are game changers for us. Those three primary projects — (the new security checkpoint, terminal expansion and rental car expansion projects) — are going to drive the future of SWFL airport and demand to come.” 

 

Rick Piccolo, Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport

RSW isn’t the only one that can’t fit in its pants anymore. 

There doesn’t seem to be a month that goes by where the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, SRQ, isn’t breaking a passenger record. The month of May alone was up 15.21% over last year in passenger traffic, while year-to-date the airport is up 57.3%. SRQ reported 1.8 million passengers this year through May. 

Enter a $72 million project expected to provide enough stretch to support about five million annual passengers. The project will add a ground-based boarding facility capable of serving upward of 2.5 million passengers a year through five new gates being built behind the current airline ticketing area. 

“We’re about three times as big as we were in 2018,” SRQ President and CEO Rick Piccolo says, “and two times as big as we were in 2019.”

Piccolo says there’s a number of parking lot improvements coming, as well as more restaurant spaces.  

Despite feeling the pressure of a growing number of passengers, Piccolo says, “we’re in good shape. Those capital improvement projects are a big part of how we’ll handle that growth.”

The biggest challenge, much like at RSW, is the time it takes to construct these projects and a worker shortage. Piccolo says the airport added 60 positions to take care of operations, including traffic control to help ease the burden of construction. 

“It’s certainly not the old SRQ where you could show up 30 minutes before your flight,” he says. “I think we’re well-positioned, but it takes a while to build. We cannot build fast enough. 

“Once (we’re through the) next two years, we’ll be in very good shape for the next five years.”  

Piccolo, 70, has been with SRQ since 1995, when he was hired for his current position. At the time, SRQ's terminal was only six-years-old, but, thanks to renovations, was $115 million in debt. Under Piccolo's leadership, the airport paid off that debt in 2014 to become one of few debt-free airports in the U.S. It remains debt-free today. 

Before his nearly 50-year career could takeoff, Piccolo had a humble start as a janitor in 1970 at what is now the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. But the grind didn't stop for Piccolo, who attended school at night. With a bachelor's in business administration, he was able to move through the ranks as the building superintendent, property manager, assistant to the airport manager and assistant director of operations. 

Eventually, he would go on to work in the operations department at Tampa International Airport and then became the assistant airport director at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. He's won multiple industry awards, and has become a leading voice in Sarasota-Bradenton tourism and education circles. That includes being appointed to a four-year term on the University of South Florida Board by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year.

Even without the awards and nominations, Piccolo would still get up and choose to lead the airport every day. Why? "I enjoy the work I do," he says. Being able to offer service and opportunities that the market demands, while keeping the facility clean and updated, is his everyday motivation. 

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