Charlotte airport ready, but is FAA?; Facility's director says major hurdles for commercial service are regulatory, not physical

Despite some initial doubts from observers, the director of Charlotte County Airport insists his operation is ready for an airline like Skybus to return commercial service after a decades-old dearth.

Lights and signs? No problem. Space for parking and for rental car companies? There is plenty, airport director Gary Quill said Thursday.

Moreover, construction of a 16,000-square-foot building already is under way to provide ample room to service passengers with restrooms and tickets counters.

"If you're talking in terms of capability, yes, we do have it," he said.

In Quill's book, the major hurdles are regulatory, not physical. He points to ongoing discussions with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Security Administration.

The latter agency, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, might represent the most difficult aspect of bringing back passenger flights.

There were 429 commercial-service airports when the TSA was created after 9/11. Before the terror attacks, airlines paid for private contractors to screen passengers and their carry-on bags to stem hijackings.

Now that is the federal government's territory, and any airport seeking to boost its service must run the federal bureaucratic gantlet.

"We have been talking to the airport, and what the airport needs to have happen is FAA certification and then we have to approve their airport security plans," said TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz. "If approved, we would come in there and support them."

An airport like Charlotte County's, with limited commercial service, would need up to five screeners per shift, one X-ray machine and one metal detector.

The cost of the equipment -- about $60,000 -- would be borne by the federal government. Screeners earn between $23,600 and $35,400 a year, also paid by the government.

The airport would be responsible for providing the secure area for the TSA screeners' work.

No competition

Skybus, a so-called "a la carte" airline where passengers pay for everything from their seat to checked luggage to blankets or a soda, primarily serves secondary airports in 11 major metropolitan areas.

The company is not new to Florida. It recently made a deal to fly into a general aviation airport in St. Augustine, with flights beginning within the month.

But Frederick "Rick" Piccolo, chief executive of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, said he would not view the arrival of Skybus in Charlotte County as a sign of any burgeoning competition for passengers with his southern neighbors.

"From a competitive standpoint, it's not that big an issue," Piccolo said. "Typically when we bleed passengers, we bleed them to Tampa.

Charlotte County Airport is closer to Fort Myers' Southwest Florida International Airport, one of the fastest-growing airports in the nation.

The larger issue for the Charlotte airport is the investment it will have to make to accommodate passengers, including police and fire presence, Piccolo said.

He also questioned how Skybus would get passengers who want to go to Charlotte County.

"Is it a destination Skybus can market and sell?" Piccolo asked. "I'm curious: What will they call it? Fort Myers-Sarasota? Port Charlotte-Punta Gorda?"

But Gary Stasko, a member of the Charlotte County Airport Authority, said he is confident passengers would want to visit the same area that attracts the former and current Presidents Bush, and that the airport's new complex could handle passenger traffic.

"We're building a new building at this time designed for multiple uses, and that building is large enough to handle all aspects of commercial flight," Stasko said. "We want to grow the airport because smaller airports tend to either grow or disappear."

"Most airports that tend to stay small tend to get sucked up by condos and such," he said.

Stasko expects an official announcement of the airline and its flight schedule within a few months.

"We know and hope it's coming, but until there is an official announcement, we're not at liberty to talk about it."

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