Airport leader attracts big players to conference

Frederick "Rick" Piccolo is doing what he does best for most of this week: pushing the merits of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

High-ranking executives from AirTran, Delta, American Airlines and a host of other commercial carriers met at the Hyatt Sarasota at Piccolo's behest to discuss the future of the industry.

Piccolo, the local airport's president, has increasing clout in the aviation industry that brought the highly-touted 12th annual Aviation Forecast Conference to town.

"We wanted to get airline executives to see what we have to offer," Piccolo said Tuesday. "The most valuable part is you get some face time."

No new flights in or out of Sarasota-Bradenton were announced at the conference, which covered everything from aviation trends to the role of regional carriers to an airport's financial impact.

It brought at least 200 people to the area's hotels for three days, and Piccolo, chairman of the North American region of Airports Council International, was the reason.

"Someone is going to offer him a whole lot of something to leave here," said Michael Boyd, a well-respected aviation consultant based in Evergreen, Colo., who has brought the conference to Sarasota twice in five years. "This is the pinnacle."

Sarasota-Bradenton has the potential to pull 300,000 passengers from the airports in Tampa and Fort Myers, and Boyd thinks Piccolo has the potential to do it.

Piccolo, who makes $186,000 annually, has enticed the airport's concession and gift shop providers to sink a combined $4.4 million into upgrades to the terminal and concourse.

Recently American Airlines' affiliate, American Eagle, said it will begin twice-daily, nonstop flights to Miami from Sarasota-Bradenton on Dec. 13. The announcement was the latest in a string of carrier additions for the airport that straddles two counties.

"He opened doors," said Will Ris, an American Airlines senior vice president, of Piccolo. "We had to make the decision on our own, but he did a great job in his advocacy."