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SRQ Thinks Allegiant Could Ultimately Prove a Game Changer

BRADENTON – The Sarasota Bradenton International Airport announced on Tuesday that it had made a deal with Allegiant Air to begin utilizing SRQ, beginning in April. The announcement marked a long-sought after foot in the door with the popular discount carrier, which only does direct flights.

Speaking at the weekly Bradenton Kiwanis luncheon that same afternoon, SRQ CEO Rick Piccolo said that while Allegiant will only be adding service to three cities initially–Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis–he believes that the carrier will expand their offerings over time. Piccolo also believes that Allegiant's decision will prompt other airlines currently servicing the airport to rethink the potential for expanding their routes.

"I think the others are going to look at Allegiant, which also flies out of both St. Pete and Punta Gorda–which are actually the two closest airports to SRQ in terms of distance–and wonder what they're seeing in terms of market opportunity in Sarasota," said Piccolo.

Piccolo said that the negatives customers most routinely cite with SRQ are a lack of direct flights, the cost of the ticket, and limited destinations. Because Allegiant only does direct flights, any expansion of routes can only help the first, and because they typically offer some of the least expensive fares in the industry, the same goes for the second. As they have created a niche in flying direct between small airports in under-served, mid-size cities, it would also seem to bode well for the third.

Piccolo also offered some pushback against the notion that fares departing from SRQ are higher because fees are higher, noting that the fees airlines pay at his airport are considerably lower than Tampa International, while explaining that such fees only represent 5 percent of the carrier's total cost.

"Carriers aren't not using SRQ, or using it for that matter, because of the difference is those costs," said Piccolo. "Those decisions are driven entirely by demand and marketopportunity."

Piccolo acknowledged that our area struggled in that regard, as well as the perception by some customers that SRQ fares will always be cost prohibitive.

"I tell people all the time, at least check us each time you book a flight," said Piccolo. "We're not going to be the right airport everytime, we know that, but quite often, they're going to be surprised."

Piccolo also had some advice on factors to consider other than cost and connections. He stressed that most connections these days require no more than an hour layover, which is an even trade for the drive to Tampa, where parking is more expensive and the customer would have to burn more gas.

"Then, if you're on your way to TIA and there's an accident on one of the bridges and you miss your flight, that wasn't the airlines fault, and it's not going to be their priority," said Piccolo. "Whereas if your flight is delayed and you miss the connection at the next airport, that's their responsibility. Now you're a high priority for the airline, who's going to work hard to come up with the best possible solution immediately."

Allegiant will begin service to Pittsburgh and Indianapolis on April 11. Cincinnati flights begin April 13. Tickets went on sale Tuesday with fares ranging from $48-56 each way.

If you haven't flown Allegiant before, the experience definitely differs from the norm. It's best thought as menu service pricing. Fares are sometimes well below half of what they cost elsewhere, but rather than building in services like bags and beverages to the price of the ticket, they (and others) come at additional fees.

You're allowed one small personal item (ie. purse of backpack), but you are charged for each bag, typically beginning with $25 for a carry-on (with strict size limitations enforced) and $40 for a checked bag, up to 40 pounds. Priority boarding and seat selection are available for a fee, and beverage and snack service is provided at reasonable costs. All seats are economy class, a bit spartan, and do not recline.

This sort of platform enables customers with modest expectations who are traveling light or not interested in the other frills a chance to keep costs very low. Even with all of the bells and whistles added on, however, the tickets are typically less expensive than with a standard carrier.

I've taken dozens of Allegiant flights over the years and, provided you know what to expect, it can be a very attractive option. The carrier serves three different airports within a one-hour radius of the town in rural Pennsylvania where I grew up, much closer than the big airport options–Philly and Newark–and easier to get in and out of, further reducing travel time.

Because the tickets are sold each way, I can use two different ones to expand flight options. Since I keep plenty of clothes up north and they're usually brief stays, I don't need to check bags. I've often gone home for weekend excursions for as little as $100 round trip, compared to $350-500 for typical flights with larger carriers at the bigger airports. I even once used Trenton and a rental car as a cheaper alternative than flying into NYC, and with no connections and the small airport factor, it was about a wash in terms of total travel time.

Their limited flight schedule, however, means Allegiant isn't always an option, and it means you can never be late for a flight. The airline typically services each of its destinations only two days a week, three to four days apart. As the airline has no means to get you to your destination until its next scheduled flight departs, you'll be on your own, and at many of the small airports (including St. Pete), they are the only commercial carrier.


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