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Orioles, Sarasota Officials Working To Make Fans' Flights To Spring Training More Convenient

January 15, 2016

Tickets for five consecutive Orioles spring training games.

Check.

Cheap rental car from Enterprise Rent-A-Car that's comfortable enough to get you and your buddies up and down Florida's west coast.

Check.

Cheap hotel room that includes breakfast.

Check.

Nonstop flight from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

Not so fast.

When the Orioles moved their spring training operations to Sarasota, Fla., in 2010, Baltimore-area fans could fly AirTran Airways nonstop from BWI to SRQ, as it's known.

It was fast and convenient. SRQ is much smaller than its neighbor 52 miles to the north, Tampa International Airport, and its neighbor 95 miles to the south, Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers, Fla.  

In 2014, the last year for which figures are available, Tampa served 17.6 million passengers, Fort Myers served 7.97 million and Sarasota served 1.2 million. That meant shorter walks to gates and shorter lines at security check points and rental car counters at SRQ. And because United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines also served SRQ, fares were competitive.

But then Southwest Airlines, which by almost every other metric has been terrific for the Baltimore region, gobbled up AirTran, and in August 2012, the six nonstop flights a day from BWI to SRQ ended.

"From a business perspective, it made sense for us to choose," Southwest spokeswoman Thais Hanson said. "And in this case, we chose Tampa and Fort Myers.

Sarasota wasn't alone. Southwest also discontinued service to former AirTran airports in Newport News, Va.; Lexington, Ky.; Harrisburg, Pa.; and Allentown, Pa., among others.

It's certainly not the worst thing in the history of the world that O's fans can't fly nonstop from BWI to Sarasota. If you're like every other airline passenger and you hate changing planes in Atlanta or Charlotte, N.C., you have options.

Fans can fly nonstop from Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. (but you have to leave at 7:40 p.m.). Or fans can fly nonstop from BWI to either Tampa or Fort Myers.

That's what Orioles fan Hal Hackerman is doing this year on his annual spring training vacation.

Hackerman, a certified public accountant for Ellin & Tucker in Baltimore, is scheduled to take off for Tampa at 8:30 a.m. on Southwest. If all goes well, he'll land at about 11:15 a.m., pick up his rental car and be at Ed Smith Stadium by 1 p.m.

"We don't check a bag," said Hackerman, who said he has been going to spring training since 1979. 

"Sure, it would be easier if [Southwest] flew to Sarasota, like AirTran did. But there are tons of flights in and out of Tampa all the time," he said, adding that if the Orioles had been playing either the Red Sox or Twins that day, he would have flown to Fort Myers.

Hackerman will be happy to know, though, that the Orioles feel his pain (or at least discomfort).

Officials at SRQ and Visit Sarasota County -- the area's convention and visitors bureau -- have been working with the team to try to convince Southwest to reinstate the BWI route.

"We've always known people at the airport board, and they've said they want to make it an initiative," Orioles executive vice president John Angelos said. "And we thought we could help and partner with the airport board and Southwest and hopefully get something done in the near future."

Mark Stuckey, vice president of special projects and development for the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority, the public agency that operates SRQ, said they meet with Southwest at least once or twice a year to go over local information, demographics and hotels that are being built in the area.

"We talk about the Orioles, obviously," he said. "We work with [convention and visitors bureaus] to put together an incentive package to try to bring Southwest back. That would include direct cash marketing dollars that would be available to them to use to promote the new service."

Stuckey said if Southwest added just one year-round daily flight to BWI, the airline would get $300,000 in marketing incentives -- a direct cash payment -- to help market the route. 

And that doesn't include what the Orioles could do.

They have had an estimated $1 million marketing partnership with Visit Sarasota County since 2010. VSC said that deal helped push the mid-Atlantic region past New York and to the top of Sarasota's origin-of-visitor cities.

Visit Sarasota County's figures indicated that from January-March of 2015, nearly 26,000 visitors came to the area from the mid-Atlantic, a 128 percent increase during the corresponding period in 2014.

And Angelos said he thinks there's plenty of room to improve.

"We've only been there half a decade," he said. "People had to try it. People were more familiar with Fort Lauderdale before we went there. Sarasota is equally a great place, but it's more a secret. I think it becomes cumulative over time."

Stuckey said SRQ is determined to convince Southwest to return -- and not just with service from BWI. He said he believes the airline would do well with service from Chicago and Dallas.

"We feel like we're a rapidly growing area, and we have all the statistics to prove that," he said. 

Said Southwest's Hanson: "We have multiple teams that look for months on end to determine where we should add service or delete service. It can take years for us to decide to enter a market."

Perhaps in 2017, then, Orioles fans will be back on the BWI-SRQ Express.

Issue 217: January 2016