Calling it the return of an old friend, officials at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport on Wednesday welcomed American Airlines independent carrier Trans States Airlines/AmericanConnection to the flight line.
Daily nonstop flights to St. Louis will begin Dec. 15.
Getting an American Airlines presence back at the airport has been a priority for airport administration ever since American Eagle pulled out of the west coast of Florida in 2001.
Airport administrators have been talking to American Airlines every month since American Eagle left.
"It's taken four years," said Jack Rynerson, airport authority commissioner and past chairman of Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority. Conversations between airport officials and airline staff intensified in the past 18 months.
Visitors to the airport Wednesday greeted the news with enthusiasm.
"We've been waiting a long time," said Dorothea Phillips, who passed through the lobby during the announcement. "It means better service. I'm glad to see another airline come in here."
Despite tough times for the airline business, Trans States Airlines saw an opportunity at Sarasota-Bradenton that was enhanced by an aggressive airport administration, said William Mishk, vice president of planning at Trans States Airlines. "The airport authority did a great job of articulating what the airport could do."
Mishk promised service competitive with other airports. If the local community responds, more destinations will follow, he said.
A code-sharing agreement with American Airlines will allow the St. Louis-based carrier to market itself as AmericanConnection and bring American Airlines benefits like frequent flier miles to customers around the country.
The American Airlines Web site Tuesday listed a rate of $398.40 for a round-trip ticket from Sarasota-Bradenton to St. Louis. Rates on Expedia.com Wednesday showed a $343 direct flight to St. Louis from Tampa on Dec. 15, returning Dec. 17. One or two-stop options were available starting at $322.
Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers showed flights with one stop or more starting at $244 for the same dates.
Starting service at an airport sandwiched between two nearby competitors is a double-edged sword, Mishk said.
"This location can be a blessing and a curse," he said. "It can be influenced by the low-cost service of competitors. But we thought if we didn't start the service this year, the window of opportunity would be lost."
All the major carriers have smaller carriers that they use as part of their fleet, said Bob Waechter, current authority chairman.
With the St. Louis hub connection, local fliers will have access to more than 275 domestic cities and 600 international cities where American Airlines flies.
"This is a great day for the airport," said Fred Piccolo, airport president and CEO. "St. Louis gives a great deal of access to the west."
The new carrier will start small with single daily flights to and from St. Louis on a 50-seat Embraer-145 regional jet.
Trans States is already thinking expansion, Mishk said. A flight to Miami and "anything going west" are at the top of Waechter's wish list. Right now, the only daily nonstop going west out of Sarasota-Bradenton is on Continental to Houston, he said.
An AmericanConnection flight on a 50-seat jet could be only temporary, Waechter said.
"Do I wish it was a 737? Sure I do," he said. "If seats keep getting sold out, it'll go to a 150-seat 737."
Once airline service is established and personnel is in place at the airport, service can be increased "with a pen-stroke," he said.
The airline went through a scaling back in 2003 when it cutback flights from its hub operation in St. Louis from 417 to 207. It also eliminated 1,500 jobs.
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