By Janet K. Keeler

The number of non-stop flights from Sarasota Bradenton International Airport to U.S. cities continues to grow. This is good news for travelers who hate the layover and especially for travelers with disabilities.

There are the expected, big-city non-stops, among them Denver, Chicago, Dallas, New York, Atlanta, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Add to those Peoria, Illinois; Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; Providence, Rhode Island; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Fort Wayne, Indiana, and plenty more cities that non-stop air service has traditionally flown by. Sarasota Bradenton (SRQ) has more than 50 non-stop flights.

The destination list is growing and that’s to help meet growing demand. Nearly 4 million passengers traveled through SRQ in 2022. In 2017, passenger traffic was less than 2 million. Among those travelers are people with a variety of disabilities, including mobility, hearing and vision issues. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, about 25 million Americans have travel-limiting disabilities. There’s no doubt that some of those travelers use SRQ.

Airport executives are banking on even more travelers booking flights to and from SRQ. In anticipation of 7 million passengers a new concourse is being built. (In comparison Tampa International sees 23 million passengers a year and Miami International has more than 37 million people finding their way to gates and baggage.) In 2024, the airport will have more gates, food options and parking.

There’s even interest in the airport from non–travelers. A dirt parking area popular with airplane enthusiasts as an observation post is being paved. Covered seating will provide perches to watch planes take off and land. Radio communications between pilots and air traffic control will be played over loudspeakers, and youngsters can swing and climb at a new playground.

Hidden Disabilities

Along with facility additions and improvements, the airport administration is eyeing additional feature to aid travelers with special needs.

Donald Farr, Sarasota Bradenton Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator, said the airport is considering joining the Sunflower Program, a global movement to aid travelers with hidden disabilities. These are conditions that may hamper travel such as post traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy, autism, ADHD or learning disabilities. None are easily recognizable by sight.

“People tend to treat you like everyone else,” he said of people who have these conditions. Because of that, airport personnel might not know that assistance is needed.

Travelers in the Sunflower Program wear a card on a sunflower-decorated lanyard that identifies them as someone with special needs. Specified airport personnel are trained to recognize that people wearing the lanyards may need extra help. The program is already in place at some of Florida’s biggest airports including Miami, Orlando and Tampa.

 Sarasota Bradenton International has a long-running volunteer ambassador program.

Airport Volunteers

SRQ has a long-running volunteer ambassador program. Farr said the volunteers are mostly retired folks trained to assist travelers and who know their way around the airport. In fact, one of their duties is to give behind-the-scenes tours to community organizations who have arranged this in advance.

Travelers can recognize the ambassadors by their uniform shirts adorned with tropical green flowers and palm fronds on a black background. The yellow tag with “Ask Me” on their chests helps too. The ambassadors are located at stations on both concourses.

Planning Ahead

The physical and mental stress that comes from negotiating a tram system from Terminal A to Terminal A Long Way Away is non-existent at SRQ. The compact airport has 13 gates that are all located in Terminal B. As luck — or bad luck — would have it, there is no actual Gate 13. The 13th gate is actually numbered 14.

The gates are on the second floor, leaving check-in (both counter and curbside), ticketing, baggage claim, car rental plus taxi, limos, buses and parking shuttle services compactly situated on the ground floor. The second floor is accessed by stairs, escalators and elevators.

Many travel experts advise people with special requests to book directly with airlines rather than third-party vendors such as Expedia or Travelocity. If you book with a third-party vendor, it is still necessary to contact the airlines to request accommodations. That might as well be done when you book the flight and will be done mostly online.

All airlines have extensive information of accessibility services plus contact information on their websites. As many know, talking to a human will take patience as you wait on hold.

Christy Rodriquez, writing in Upgraded Points, said that dealing with the airline directly is the best way to arrange for a specific seat and to let them know you will be traveling with a service animal or medical equipment such as oxygen.

Most airlines ask that travelers let them know about service animals no earlier than 72 hours before the scheduled departure. All airlines allow trained service animals to fly with passengers for free in accordance with the ADA. There are fees for emotional support animals and other pets.

The biggest advantage to booking directly through the airline — after you’ve researched prices through an online booking site — is that they provide the airport guides. Guides meet travelers at curbside or at the gate upon arrival. A travel agent can also help in booking and requesting accommodations.

Farr said that many people believe that it’s the airport they should be communicating with about arranging assistance but it’s actually the airline. Under U.S. laws, that responsibility is put on the carrier.

If you arrived at the airport without arranging help in advance, head to one of the ambassador stations or ask a traveling companion to do this for you. They can call your airline for assistance.

Farr said that it can be confusing to know who is in charge of what at any airport.

“The airport operates the airport and sitting right in the middle is security and that’s operated by the U.S. government,” he said. “There’s always a lot of trepidation about a chair, implant or a service dog.”

He suggested getting acquainted with TSA Cares. Within 72 hours of departure, a traveler can call the passenger support system and connect with a person to talk about procedures and accommodations.

 The number of non-stop flights from Sarasota Bradenton International Airport to U.S. cities continues to grow.




Often travelers with disabilities will be accompanied by someone when they arrive at the airport, Farr said. He suggested that the companion pull the car up to the curb and flag down a ground transportation representative in a yellow vest. These employees mostly direct traffic but they can notify the airline that someone who has arranged for help has arrived.

While curb unloading and loading is usually meant to be a quick affair, extra-time is given to those with special needs.

There are signs on pillars with a number to call for wheelchair assistance. If one hasn’t been arranged already, it’s likely that one of the volunteer ambassadors will be notified to facilitate.

Specials needs parking is in the uncovered lot in front of the airport and accessible spaces are located closest to the airport’s ticketing and baggage claim areas. Farther away is long-term parking and there is shuttle transportation to the airport, including a van equipped with a wheelchair lift.

Inside the Airport

Restrooms: There are three accessible restrooms in the ticketing and baggage claim areas and another five on the second level. There is also a companion restroom that has a private area on the third floor of the main terminal. Staff at the information stations near the car rental desk on ground level and just before security on the second level can provide directions.

Service animals: Passengers traveling with trained service animals should let the airlines know this when making reservations. But even after or before travel, dogs need a place to relieve themselves and SRQ has three such areas designed with the help of Southeastern Guide Dogs which has its training facility nearby. Two of the stations are outside, one near ticketing and the second one on the other end of the terminal near the taxis. The third is located near gate B2 on the other side of the security checkpoint. 

The well-marked and walled-off areas include a small artificial grass patch, a sink and clean-up supplies. Airport staff monitor the relief areas for cleanliness but travelers are asked to clean up after their dogs. Pet owners traveling with dogs may also use the relief areas.

Hearing and vision impairment: Farr said that one thing that sets SRQ apart from other medium-sized airports is the availability of T-coil loop technology. People with hearing aids that use the technology can connect with airport announcements once on Concourse B where the gates are. This will allow them to hear flight announcements, including delays and boarding information.

The T-coil kicks in, he said, after passengers clear security. The T-coil loop is not active in restrooms, stores or food and beverage outlets. Travelers should check with their audiologist or hearing aid specialist to determine if their hearing aids have T-coil compatibility.

Travelers with vision impairment should let the airline know when they book tickets that they will need assistance from a sighted guide. For arrivals, the guide will meet the flight at the gate and connect with the traveler after deplaning. For departures, upon arrival at the airport, request that traffic control staff patrolling the terminal curb or Airport Operations (by telephone at 941-359-2770 ext. 4300) notify your airline of your location and your need for assistance.

Journey from Plane to Vehicle

Once passengers have deplaned, there are several ways to leave the airport and get on their way.

  • If passengers need to retrieve checked luggage, they will head down one flight to baggage claim. Airline personnel will assist those in wheelchairs via elevators that can be used by anyone. An escalator is also available. Skycaps are available to help wrangle luggage off moving belts.
  • If passengers have carry-on luggage only, they will go down one floor via escalator or elevator to their chosen ground transportation. This includes taxis, private limo services, airport shuttles, public transportation and car rentals. Buses serving locations in Manatee and Sarasota counties are handicap accessible. Call ahead for schedules or check them out online: Sarasota County Area Transit, (941) 861-5000 and Manatee County Area Transit, (941) 749-7116
  • If passengers need to rent a vehicle, eight well-known companies, including Avis, Alamo, Budget, Hertz and Enterprise, have on-site counters near the baggage claim.

The Return

Travelers with special needs who travel frequently know that they should give themselves plenty of time to check in and get to their gate. Even at a medium-sized airport like SRQ, this is important to eliminate last-minute panic. “Plenty of time” is at least two to three hours.

Travelers returning to the airport have a better idea of the facility’s layout. But still, they should leave plenty of time to return cars and get through security. Communicating with TSA Cares within before departure can make the security check process quicker and smoother. The agents there know you might need assistance because of a wheelchair or service animal.

And speaking of service animals, arriving early will allow time for Buddy to use the relief areas. Plus the extra time lets you get something to eat or even just coffee and a donut.

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