BRADENTON — Airlines are merging or going bankrupt, throwing thousands out of work. Passengers endure security hassles and long delays caused by aging planes.
But in the turbulent U.S. aviation industry, it has been a comfortable ride for one Floridian — Fredrick J. Piccolo, president and CEO of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.
At $196,285 a year, Piccolo makes nearly $73,000 more than the director of the larger Pensacola airport and about $3,500 more than the director of Palm Beach International, which handles five times as many passengers as Sarasota-Bradenton.
And that's just for starters in the most expansive compensation package of any airport director in Florida.
The Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority provides Piccolo with a 2005 Acura and pays for maintenance including regular oil checks ($53), tires ($974) and even car washes.
Piccolo also gets three round-trip tickets a year for wife Sally to accompany him on business trips, some as far away as Buenos Aires. And in another perk almost unheard of in the airport industry, the authority provides Piccolo with a $425,000 pool home it bought in Sarasota so he won't have to commute as often from his own house in St. Petersburg. An additional $75,000 went to update and furnish the Sarasota house.
As the authority meets today for Piccolo's annual review, board members say the money is well spent.
"He does have a very generous package, and he's worth every penny of it,'' says chairman Jack Rynerson, noting that Piccolo lured low-cost carriers AirTran and JetBlue to the airport.
But Piccolo's salary and benefits have raised eyebrows even though the authority — a public agency — gets no tax money and is supported entirely by rents, landing fees and other business operations.
"His compensation is kind of nutty,'' says Michael Stephenson, president of a firefighters local that fought unsuccessfully in 2006 to keep the airport from privatizing its fire department in a cost-cutting move. "When you look at his salary and factor in all that other stuff, it's not much different than the biggest airports around.''
With 1.6-million passengers a year, Sarasota-Bradenton ranks 94th among all U.S. airports and ninth in Florida. It has long struggled to increase commercial service because it is within an hour's drive of 27th-ranked Tampa International, which offers 10 times more daily flights to more destinations.
"It's not always easier to run a smaller airport, certainly not when it comes to air service,'' says Piccolo, 55, who came to Sarasota-Bradenton in 1995 after working at TIA. "When airlines cut back, the first place they go are places like mine.''
'Not a mansion'
Piccolo is well-regarded in the industry. He was North American chairman of Airport Councils International last year and is a past president of the Florida Airport Managers Association. Sarasota-Manatee board members say their fear of losing him is why they agreed to perks generous enough to surprise others in the business.
"Wow, that sounds pretty good,'' Greg Chin, spokesman for 15th-ranked Miami International, said of Piccolo's salary and benefits. Miami's aviation director makes a higher salary, but gets no house or spouse travel privileges.
For years, Piccolo commuted 70 miles a day between his St. Petersburg house and the airport. To encourage him to move to the community served by the airport, the board first considered giving him use of a house that had been noise-proofed with federal grant money. But when the Federal Aviation Administration balked at that idea, the authority dipped into its own funds in 2005 to buy a house.
Board member Paul Sharff said it would be a good investment but voiced concern about the perception.
"The question will be, how is Mr. Piccolo's moving here going to bring us more air service?" he wondered.
Nonetheless, the board unanimously approved the purchase plus $25,000 for "window treatments and furnishings.'' The Piccolos — who still spend considerable time in St. Petersburg — bought a $2,084 Sony 40-inch flat-screen TV and a $2,059 modular entertainment center for the Sarasota place.
"It's not a mansion,'' Piccolo says of the 24-year-old house, now updated with granite countertops. "It needed a lot of work, though I'm not saying it's a terrible benefit.''The board also approved travel for Sally Piccolo, who has used her round-trip tickets to accompany him to Hawaii (ticket cost: $2,352), Zurich ($2,710), South Africa ($6,807) and Buenos Aires ($2,759).
"It is a lot of money,'' Rynerson, the board chairman says, "but we knew he was going to be doing extensive travel and having her fly three times out of 20 doesn't bother me.''
Partly due to his chairmanship of the airports council, Piccolo took 23 trips last year for a total cost of $53,500. By comparison, TIA executive director Louis Miller, who also served on the council board, took eight trips totaling $14,000.
The airport authority's six members — three each from Manatee and Sarasota counties — are appointed by the governor and get a $2,000 annual stipend. All are Republican, and several have strong political ties, including Sharff, former head of the Manatee Republican Party; Leslie Wells, wife of former Manatee Sheriff Charlie Wells; and Eric Robinson, chairman of the Sarasota Republican Party.
Two of Piccolo's children also have been active in Republican politics.
Fred Jr. worked on U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris' unsuccessful 2006 Senate campaign. Thomas Piccolo, then 23, unsuccessfully ran for the state House from St. Petersburg that year. A third of his campaign contributions came from aviation industry professionals and companies doing business at the Sarasota-Bradenton airport.
Piccolo acknowledges asking for contributions. Neither he nor board chairman Rynerson saiy they saw any problem with that.
"Most of the people in the industry know everybody else reasonably well,'' Rynerson says. "He (Piccolo) also jacked prices up for everybody at the airport. If he was going to be nice to them, he wouldn't have done that.''
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at email@example.com.