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INTERVIEW: ARN’s Director Of The Year Fredrick (Rick) J. Piccolo

After an overwhelming response from both airport and concessionaire executives during ARN’s online voting process for director of the year, Frederick Piccolo won the winning number of votes in the small airports category. The nominee list in this category included a total of eight directors and was compiled by industry participants who submitted the names of their favorite directors. Piccolo ARN’s director of the year for small airports, is president and chief executive officer of Sarasota Bradenton International (SRQ). Located just 50 miles from Tampa International (TPA), fewer than 50 miles from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International (PIE) and about 90 miles from Southwest Florida International (RSW) at Fort Myers, SRQ faces intense competition serving the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Piccolo launched his career in aviation in 1970 when, fresh out of high school, he joined Buffalo Niagara International (BUF) as a custodian. He worked his way up to airfield maintenance before being drafted into the military. Upon his return from duty, he rejoined BUF, working his way through various positions at the airport while earning his college degree in business administration from the University of New York at Buffalo. He continued to climb the ladder at BUF until 1984, when he joined TPA as assistant director of operations. After 21/2 years at TPA, he joined PIE as assistant airport director. In 1995, he took on his current position at SRQ.

Piccolo has ushered SRQ through myriad challenges in his 14-year tenure, ranging from a change in governing structure in 2000, to the trials of Sept. 11 and a subsequent downturn in traffic that lasted through 2004. Strong growth ensued through 2008 until the current recession took its toll. For the 12 months through August 31, 2009, SRQ served 1.34 million passengers, down 14.2% from the same period a year ago.

Despite his position at the helm of a relatively small airport, Piccolo has a national presence in the industry, serving as chairman of the 2007 Airports Council International-North America board of directors. On a personal note, Piccolo and his wife, Sally, have three sons, ranging in age from 26 to 32.

Piccolo spoke with ARN’s Carol Ward about his time at SRQ.

ARN: The aviation industry has gone through myriad changes over the course of your career. What are some of the key highlights of your tenure at SRQ?

Piccolo: The first one was the change of governance in 2000, transitioning from an elected board to an appointed board. SRQ was one of only two airports in the country that had a board that was elected by the populace just to run the airport. That made for a very dysfunctional operation and board. In 2000, after doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work with the business leaders and some state legislative leaders, we were able to get the question of the governance of the airport on the ballot. This is a two-county authority, so it had to pass in two counties. People usually don’t give up the right to vote on their leadership, but the board was so dysfunctional that the measure passed by a 2-1 margin in each county. Now we have businesspeople who are appointed by the governor, and it has permitted management to focus on our business operations and the entre-preneurial mission of the airport rather than personal political agendas of prior elected people. The second thing was in 2001, the main runway was extended from 7,000 feet to 9,500 feet. When I arrived in 1995, there was very strong opposition to a runway extension, especially in the neighboring community around the airport. It took six years of very extensive effort to explain to people the benefits both economically and environmentally. The extension made it more viable for airlines to serve us. The third thing is the financial stabilization of the airport. We made a major effort to realign our portfolio and diversify the airport revenue. We built an industrial park, [and] we added major corporate hangars, a golf course and hotel, and all these things resulted in lower costs to the airlines over the years. In fact, this year we’ve got the lowest landing fee in the history of the airport for FY2010, despite the recession and loss of service.

ARN: What were or are the most critical periods for your airport?

Piccolo: We experienced about a 50% drop in air traffic from 2002 to 2004. Certainly 9/11 was part of that, but the airport was continuing to see a drop in air service. We were bleeding traffic to Tampa. In 2004-05 we got a small community air service grant, which allowed us to attract AirTran Airways. That was our first true low-cost carrier, and that led to jetBlue coming to the airport and our legacy carriers adding flights and becoming more aggressive in their pricing. From 2004 to 2008, our traffic then went up 50%. That was a very critical period because as the service continued to drop, it affected the finances of the airport, and we were getting concerned.

Read the rest of the interview with SRQ’s Fredrick Piccolo in the upcoming November issue of Airport Revenue News. Click here to subscribe!