Smaller airports in Florida have not just bounced back from the pandemic, several of them have surged ahead of pre-pandemic passenger traffic, with one airport setting an all-time high last month.
According to the airport’s press release, during the month of March, passenger traffic at the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport (SRQ) soared to 277,590 passengers, breaking the all-time record of 255,247 passengers for a single month at the airport. Passenger numbers increased 74 percent over the previous month of February. Compared to March 2020, passenger traffic was 81 percent higher than the 2020 level of 153,246.
“It is really exciting to see us break our record for the highest number of passengers in a single month. With the recent addition of Southwest Airlines, and expanded service on our nine other carriers, travelers now have a multitude of choices when making their travel plans,” stated Rick Piccolo, President, CEO of the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport. “Now that a vaccine is readily available in the United States, domestic passenger travel has quickly returned to SRQ and we expect to see a record number of passengers through the remainder of the year.”
In March 2018, SRQ had six airlines serving 12 nonstop destinations. For March 2021, SRQ had 10 airlines serving 45 nonstop destinations. This rapid growth has required the airport to expand the screening checkpoint, add additional parking, and install additional jet fuel storage.
Future projects that are currently in design include expanding the ground transportation area, adding additional parking for rental cars, constructing a new inline baggage handling system, and adding additional concessionaires including new restaurants and gift shops.
SRQ’s high volume is indicative of a national trend of major airports still suffering from reduced traffic while smaller airports, especially outdoor vacation destinations, soar.
Like SRQ, Key West International Airport is also busier than normal, while Miami International has half as many passengers as it did before the pandemic.
“The only thing that is different is the masks,” Richard Strickland, airport director at Key West International, told the New York Times. “We’re now busier than we were in 2019.”
On Florida’s Gulf Coast, airports near beaches are having a similarly good year. There were 24 percent more passengers passing through Northwest Florida Beaches airport in early March than around that time last year.
Kevin Williams, a Yale economist who studies air travel data compiled Transportation Security Administration data that tracks how many people move through airport screening checkpoints. He told the New York Times, data shows that, with millions being vaccinated daily and states rolling back pandemic restrictions, Americans are returning to leisure travel in large numbers.
The smaller airports, where travel is thriving, appear to fall into two categories: those especially close to outdoor vacation destinations, and those serving communities whose residents are more willing to travel amid a pandemic.