Airline boarding numbers strong across state

North Dakota airports had strong and even record-breaking August boarding numbers, according to data released by the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission.

Minot International Airport had 19,656 passengers in August, just slightly down from 20,743 this past August. Both those are considerable increases over the previous two Augusts – 13,990 in 2011 and 8,798 in 2010.

While Minot International Airport’s growth is substantial, Sloulin Field International Airport in Williston is breaking records. There were 8,640 boardings in August, easily eclipsing August boardings of 2,466 last year, 2,926 in 2011 and 1,389 in 2010.

Across the four commercial and four regional airports in North Dakota, August boardings totaled 97,805, up from 88,307 last year, 73,705 in 2011 and 70,145 in 2010.

Joshua Simmers, projects manager at the N.D. Aeronautics Commission, said four airports across the state – Fargo, Grand Forks, Dickinson and Williston – had record-breaking boarding numbers in August. Simmers added that Minot and Bismarck airports have both been continually strong, as well.

Although he doesn’t have data breaking down boardings into specific categories such as business, leisure and so forth, Simmers said a strong economy throughout North Dakota has helped contribute to the increases.

“It’s not just the energy, but it’s the healthy economy across the state,” Simmers said. “We suspect that it’s a balance of North Dakotans getting out and doing more things, but also the increased population and workforce coming in.

“We know that this is not temporary or short-term growth that’s happening in North Dakota, but a long-term change,” he added.

Simmers said while the data are for airline boardings, increases in all sorts of aviation numbers can be seen across the state.

“Flight training, medical use, agricultural use – it’s one of those industries that touches every area of our life,” Simmers said. “This report of airline travel is just one indicator of that and of the great usage of aviation at our airports, both large and small.”

To help support all this growth, a number of different projects are are being carried out at numerous airports regardless of their size.

Kyle Wanner, airport planner for the aeronautics commission, said there are many airport projects in northwest North Dakota that show just how much the aviation industry is growing. Currently, he said the priority is the new terminal in Minot.

“We want Minot to be the relief valve, if you will, for the western development. The first step of that is to fund that terminal project, which is getting under way … Sept. 30,” Wanner said.

Minot recently received a Federal Aviation Administration grant for the project, and Wanner hopes the FAA will consider future allocations for the terminal, as well.

“To couple with that project, you need an apron in front of the terminal so aircraft can park in front of the terminal, and that portion of the project has not yet been funded. It’s currently estimated at about $16 million for the terminal apron project,” Wanner said. “We’re asking the Federal Aviation Administration to help fund that project in 2014.”

Andy Solsvig, airport director at Minot International Airport, said they have tripled their service since 2009. He said it is believed the existing terminal was designed for approximately 100,000 passengers per year. Last year Minot had a record 224,421 boardings and is on track for about the same amount this year. Through August, boardings in 2013 are at 145,667.

After having the lowest total in 15 years in 2009 with 66,771 boardings, Minot’s airport had its second-highest boarding number ever in 2010 at 90,823, then broke the record in each of the next two years with 150,450 boardings in 2011 and 224,421 last year.

While the boarding numbers are strong, Solsvig said there are still challenges to be met.

“We’ve seen some decrease and that is directly related to air service in Williston and some leakage to Bismarck,” Solsvig said.

Solsvig believes boardings might have temporarily plateaued in Minot because of the cramped terminal. He hopes the leakage from Bismarck will return once the new Minot terminal comes online in the fall of 2015.

In addition to four active gates with two more in reserve to handle future growth, there will also be ticket counter space for four airlines, which could be expanded to six, a coffee shop or cafe, restaurant bar and gift shop, four car rental companies with the ability to expand if needed, and plenty of lobby space for passengers to stretch out in. Solsvig noted this will be in stark contrast to the cramped conditions at the current terminal.

“We’ve designed the building based on a 30-year forecast,” Solsvig said. “Forecasts can change, but we could reach levels equal to or larger than what Fargo is experiencing – easily over 300,000 passengers, possibly up to 400 or 450,000.”

In Williston, they are looking at either expanding the airport or relocating it completely. Wanner said they will once again be looking toward the FAA for help in funding that project.

Steven Kjergaard, airport manager in Williston, said the record-breaking August boarding numbers aren’t unexpected.

“We’ve been slowly growing every month since Delta and United started (service this past November),” Kjergaard said. “We’ve grown so much that both Delta and United are even adding another flight in December.”

The addition of those two airlines has given oil field workers, as well as other passengers, easy access to commercial flights and given the airport a dramatic increase in boardings. Through August of this year, Williston has 59,658 boardings. During all of last year there were only 37,508 passengers, with 27,774 in 2011, 15,897 in 2010 and 11,229 in 2009.

“Most of it is oil related,” Kjergaard said. “However, you do have leisure passengers going out.”

This rapid growth is the reason a new or expanded airport is on the table. Kjergaard said their terminal is designed for 6,000 to 8,000 passengers per year, and they are currently running about 9,000 per month.

At this point, there is no clear indication whether the airport will be relocated or expanded. Three different sites within eight miles of the current terminal are being considered for possible relocation. The FAA is currently reviewing the environmental and master plan documents.

“Hopefully by the early part of next year we will have an agreement on what is our best option to continue forward, and we will start that process down that road,” Kjergaard said. “We definitely need to do something.”

In addition to the large projects in Minot and Williston, there are many other smaller projects scattered around the region. A few of the ones Wanner named include Stanley, which just rehabilitated its runway and will be constructing a new concrete apron for aircraft to park on; Mohall and Tioga will both be getting fuel systems; Tioga is also planning a taxiway and apron expansion for next summer; Watford City is likewise planning an apron expansion for next summer; Killdeer and New Town are both planning runway reconstructions next summer; and Crosby will be reconstructing its taxiway and apron, and rehabilitating its runway lights.

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s just a lot going on in western North Dakota, and in the whole state for that matter. We have infrastructure needs statewide, but it’s a good sign, as well, because of the growth we’ve been seeing,” Wanner said. “The public is starting to see the benefits that airports and aviation provide.”