‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ opens a soliloquy by the young Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in the first line of Shakespeare’s play, ‘Richard III’. It expresses the idea that we have reached the depth of our unhappiness and that better times are ahead. Certainly, an analogy with the aeronautical industry would fit well with this line.
The industry has endured two years of depressed traffic and countless challenges. In April 2020, your local airport had less than 10,000 passengers using the facility for the entire month. Empty parking lots, closed food and shopping concessions and hundreds of thousands of employees around the world worried about their future jobs. Fortunately, SRQ and our region have recovered faster than most of the country and the world, for that matter.
In April, the airport is on track to exceed 400,000 passengers for the second consecutive month. Passenger traffic for the first three months of 2022 is just under 1.1 million. Just a few years ago, this was equivalent to one year of activity. Service and pricing options have expanded significantly for airport users. These developments have a huge positive economic benefit for the community.
While the pandemic has created huge initial negative impacts, your airport’s overwhelming recovery and growth should make people think like the soliloquy – that better times are ahead. There are undoubtedly many reasons to be grateful and optimistic from the airport’s perspective, but many challenges remain for the industry as a whole and for the airport.
Several industry-wide issues are already affecting our upcoming summer schedule. Labor shortages on the ground and in the air continue to affect the speed and availability of services. At times, passengers experienced significant delays from some airlines in removing their baggage from the aircraft and transporting it to the baggage carousels, or even to dock at a jet deck despite the availability of gates. This is due to a shortage of airline ground staff, and this experience is not unique to SRQ. Rental cars and security check lines can also be problematic at times. Labor shortages exist in many areas, but passenger frustration levels can be high when on the last leg of your trip and an unforeseen delay ensues.
Shortages of pilots and flight crew affect the entire system. At the start of the pandemic, airlines offered early retirement packages to thousands of flight crew members anticipating a much longer road to resumption of ridership. Additionally, about 40% of US-based airline pilots are expected to retire in the next decade, according to a report by Bloomberg intelligence analyst George Ferguson. The 2013 change increasing to 1,500 flight hours before a pilot can become a commercial pilot is also slowing the talent supply chain. In some cases, this makes pursuing a career as a commercial pilot too expensive to achieve.
Rising fuel costs are quickly becoming the second major issue for airlines. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), fuel costs in North America are up 30% from last month and 157% from a year ago. Finally, the impacts of COVID have not yet fully abated with a final variant affecting mask mandate extensions and the conflict in
Ukraine has an additional impact on fuel costs and international travel. For example, the routes needed to avoid the conflict zone lengthen flights, which increases costs due to increased fuel prices and crew time.
I raise these concerns because it looks like our winter of discontent could very well turn into a summer of discontent. Airlines have reduced their schedules across the country to match expected labor availability. Airlines are also cutting schedules for smaller planes because the increased cost of fuel cannot be spread over enough customers to be profitable. This will mean less choice and fewer pricing options for the consumer. This will mean that the huge levels of growth and service expansions here at your airport will level off and may even regress a bit as airlines realign their services to better serve customers until staffing issues resolve. implemented are resolved and fuel prices come down.
While this may be a small mistake in the airport’s trajectory, it is moving full speed ahead with facility improvements, including terminal and parking expansion, to ensure you continue to enjoy convenience and of the SRQ facility. Hopefully these problems are short-lived. In the meantime, the airport will use any reductions to focus on improving its facilities to better serve you and ensure that the coming winter is not one of discontent.
Rick Piccolo has been President and CEO of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport since 1995 and serves on various international aviation, business and charitable boards. He can be contacted at [email protected]