Expanding airlines

In the past four years, Minot International Airport has gone from trying to lure new airlines to trying to make enough space for all the new flights.

Market demand has made all the difference.

From 2009 to 2013, the number of annual passenger boardings in Minot increased from 66,771 to 222,083. So far in 2014, boardings are running 1 percent above 2013 and airline load factors the number of occupied seats is averaging 81 percent. Allegiant has led the way with nearly a 94 percent occupancy.

“We look to make sure that we aim for 90 percent load factor on all of our flights,” said Justin Ralenkotter, spokesman for Allegiant Air. “This far, we have been very happy with what we have seen as far as load factors and profitability.

“We are thrilled with the reception that we have received from Minot,” he added. “The economy in North Dakota has definitely been good for Allegiant.”

Allegiant Air began offering direct flights from Minot to Las Vegas in October 2010. It followed United Airlines, which entered the Minot market in June 2010. Frontier arrived in November 2012. Delta Airlines began operating in Minot in 2008 after merging with Northwest Airlines, which had served the community for a number of years.

Currently at 10 to 14 flights a day, compared to seven or eight three years ago, the airport seems to be providing the flight frequency to satisfy the flying public, said airport director Andrew Solsvig.

“With the new terminal, the hope is to get new markets, new flights, maybe even a new airline. That’s what we are working on now, so we are ready to go when the new building opens,” Solsvig said. “But there’s no guarantee with that, either. It’s all supply and demand driven. We are making a good case for certain routes. We know the airlines are paying attention to that.”

Allegiant added flights to Phoenix/Mesa in March 2011. Catering to the leisure travel market, Allegiant also offers flights to Florida out of North Dakota but not from Minot.

“We don’t have any immediate plans to add Florida (to Minot), but as a carrier we have a whole department that’s constantly looking at forward booking and travel demand,” Ralenkotter said. “It’s definitely a possibility going forward.”

The presence of lower-fare airlines such as Allegiant and Frontier in the Minot market seems to be influencing prices as well. Solsvig noted that travelers occasionally can find airline deals to Phoenix or Las Vegas that beat Allegiant’s prices.

Statistics provided by Allegiant show that having competition does make a difference.

In the year before Allegiant entered the market, the number of passengers traveling from Minot to Las Vegas totalled 1,227 and the average fare was $239. In the year ending in the fall of 2012, passenger numbers were 27,544 and the average fare was $137, a 42 percent drop.

In the year before Allegiant, airlines boarded 1,950 passengers flying out of Minot to Phoenix. That increased to 21,253 passengers in the year following Allegiant’s launch of its nonstop Phoenix/Mesa route. Meanwhile, fares fell from an average $222 to $138, a nearly 38 percent decline.

Despite the benefit of competition, the cost of fares is a concern that still gets raised by travelers, Solsvig said.

The difference in fares between Minot and North Dakota’s other larger, commercial airports tends to be inconsistent. Minot’s fares can be higher or lower depending on the particular flight on a particular day, Solsvig said.

A random, online check on a midweek, roundtrip flight on Delta to Atlanta in July found Minot fares at that particular time to be about 9.5 percent more than Bismarck and 15 percent more than Fargo, while a United flight to Denver in July was 10 percent less than Bismarck but 20 percent more than Fargo. Frontier provided signficantly lower fares to Denver with little or no fare difference from Bismarck or Fargo, although travel flexibility is necessary with Frontier’s less than daily service.

The Minot airport continues to lose some passengers to other airports, especially those airports where airlines are offering more destinations, Solsvig said.

The biggest impact on Minot air traffic, though, has been the introduction of jet service to Williston, he said. The actual impact is difficult to measure. In March, Williston’s airport saw a 26 percent increase in passenger boardings, or nearly 2,000 people, while Minot was up 1,120 passengers or 6 percent over March 2013.

Solsvig said airlines typically like to see a load factor of at least 80 percent, and Minot has been in that range. The average load factor was as high as 88 percent in December 2010 but there were fewer than half the number of seats that exist today. Last year, there were 293,477 available seats, a 117 percent increase over 2010 and a 194 percent increase over 2009.

Delta reduced its seat capacity in Minot last year and is expected to be down a little this year, Solsvig said. Its seven daily flights in 2013 were down one from 2012 but the airline switched to larger aircraft, he said. Delta has six daily flights scheduled in May.

Allegiant will be offering two flights a week to Las Vegas when the summer schedule begins in June and will be increasing again to four flights a week in the fall. Allegiant has two weekly Phoenix flights scheduled in May.

During May, United is offering four daily flights to Denver and Frontier has a Monday, Wednesday and Friday flight to Denver. United has grown from two daily round-trip flights in 2010 to four daily round-trip flights, which the airline reported that it plans at this time to continue through this year. Delta and Frontier had not responded as of Wednesday to an inquiry about whether they plan any flight changes this year.

In the future, Solsvig said, federal aviation rules could affect how the Minot airport receives service. One critical Federal Aviation Administration rule relates to pilot rest and required training, which will affect pilot availability.

“It’s going to impact a lot of airlines and a lot of markets. Plus, the airlines, Delta and United specifically, are going to be getting rid of their 50-seat regional jets altogether,” Solsvig said.

The elimination of aging regional jets that have become expensive to maintain will be gradual but also will be significant for smaller airports like Williston and Dickinson that are served solely by these aircraft, he said. In Minot, United operates with 50-passenger regional jets, and Delta also uses the jets on certain flights.

“It could mean we lose some flights, so our frequency might decrease. Hopefully, they will maintain them with larger aircraft,” Solsvig said.

Given Minot’s choice location near the state’s major oil play, airport officials aren’t worried about airlines pulling back as work proceeds on a new $40 million commercial terminal.

Contractors have started work on the foundation and in several weeks will be erecting the steel structure. Solsvig said the contractor plans to have the structure enclosed enough by fall to work inside over next winter. Completion is expected in the fall of 2015.

“It puts us in a good position with the new infrastructure we are building right now,” Solsvig said. “We should be able to have sustainability for the long term.”