Humphrey terminal: Small, but room to grow

  • Article by: LIZ FEDOR , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2009 - 5:31 PM

With the arrival of Southwest Airlines in March, the smaller terminal soon will become much better known.

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Like many Minnesota travelers, Leah Anderson didn't know much about the Humphrey terminal. Although she'd grown up around airports -- her dad worked for United Airlines -- she had never traveled through the Humphrey at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport until this winter.

But when she and her son, Cameron, returned to the Twin Cities recently from Orlando, she was enthusiastic about the often-overlooked Humphrey.

"It was easy to find your way around," said the stay-at-home mother from Prior Lake, adding that she waited about 2 minutes before going through security screening.

The Humphrey will have a much higher profile starting March 8 when Southwest Airlines begins operating eight daily flights to Chicago's Midway Airport. Flying 137-seat Boeing 737s, Southwest, which transports more domestic passengers than any other U.S. airline, will attract a wave of new fliers to Humphrey.

But those new flights haven't attracted scores of new businesses trying to capture those fliers. At the request of the airports commission, HMS Host, which manages food, beverage and other concessions at Humphrey, will open two food and two news kiosks.

D'Amico and Sons and French Meadow sandwiches and salads will be among the new food offerings. But there are no immediate plans to add more amenities, such as a second full-service restaurant. "We will evaluate the demand and work with the airport if traffic grows in this terminal," said Susan Goyette, spokeswoman for Bethesda, Md.-based HMS, which operates in airports and Interstate travel plazas around the country.

Humphrey lost passengers this past year as the recession deepened and airlines pared back their flying. But 2009 is expected to be a better year.

The $82 million complex has had its ups and downs since opening in 2001, replacing a facility about 25 years old that had been used primarily for charter flights.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the terminal's carriers were hit hard by a steep passenger dropoff.

Departing traffic fell 44 percent in 2002, but by 2005, the total of chartered and scheduled-service passengers flying out of Humphrey had returned to its 2001 levels. The terminal's passenger traffic peaked in 2007, with 1.28 million passenger departures, before falling nearly 19 percent last year as Sun Country and AirTran scaled back. By comparison, the Northwest-dominated Lindbergh had 15.9 million departing passengers last year.

Southwest, which is enticing Twin Cities consumers with $49 and $69 one-way fares to Chicago, is expected to introduce Humphrey to a new audience of business and leisure travelers. From Chicago, fliers can connect readily to flights to more than 30 cities.

"The fact that it is a new facility is very attractive for us," said Pete Houghton, Southwest's director of properties. He checked out the Humphrey offerings and use by competing carriers months before Southwest announced in October that it would enter the Twin Cities market.

At Humphrey, Houghton said, "There is sufficient capacity to handle our announced flights and any growth that might come along for the next couple of years."

With two gates, Southwest could operate 20 flights daily.

Humphrey now has leases with five scheduled-service airlines: Southwest, Sun Country, AirTran Airways, Midwest Airlines and Icelandair, which plans to resume service to Reykjavik, Iceland, in May.

But charter flights have been reduced significantly. AeroMexico is flying daily to Cancun, Mexico, for MLT Vacations, said Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), which governs operations at the Humphrey and Lindbergh terminals. However, "charter activities at the Humphrey terminal are much less frequent than they were a decade ago, when Champion Air, Ryan Air, Omni and others flew seasonal charters from MSP every year."

More gates down the road?

Jeff Hamiel, MAC executive director, said that with downtime at existing gates, the Humphrey still has room to grow. And there's land available to add 18 or 19 more gates.

"There are a couple of things that could drive Humphrey expansion," Hamiel said. If Southwest, Sun Country or other carriers want to greatly increase their flights at Humphrey, then Hamiel envisions that the MAC would move to add gates.

Sun Country filed for bankruptcy in October, but its financial situation has improved dramatically since then, as its peak winter flying season began. It had a $1 million profit in the final quarter of 2008, after losing $18 million in the fourth quarter of 2007.

Sun Country CEO Stan Gadek said it's a competitive advantage to fly out of a terminal that consumers view as convenient.

Under a second scenario, Hamiel said, "There could be a relocation of Lindbergh [terminal] airlines over to the Humphrey."

Northwest Airlines leases 101 of the 127 gates at Lindbergh, while Delta Air Lines, which acquired Northwest in October, operates three gates. If Delta wants to proceed with a major expansion of its Twin Cities operations, Hamiel said other big airlines at Lindbergh -- United Airlines, US Airways or American Airlines -- might move to Humphrey.

Neither expansion option is contemplated in the short term.

Many travelers, who like the quiet, easily navigable terminal, aren't focusing on its growth possibilities.

Jackie and Kevin Vranicar, who've flown Sun Country multiple times and were traveling to Las Vegas in late January to attend the Miss America Pageant, said they like Humphrey because there's less hubbub -- and parking is cheaper that at the Lindbergh.

"I love it," said Chere Bork, a health and life coach from Eden Prairie, who recently was flying on Sun Country to San Diego to deliver a speech. "Everybody smiles here," Bork said, adding that many customers are happy because Sun Country employees emphasize good customer service and security lines are short.

Gadek said it's convenient for Sun Country passengers to park in Humphrey ramp spaces or get dropped off in front of the terminal. But he said travelers who want to get to the Humphrey terminal via light rail have to walk a long distance out in the cold and some people get lost. "They've got to find some way of enclosing it and putting in moving sidewalks or something," Gadek said.

Anderson, who was traveling with her 8-year-old son, said she'd like to see more food choices. "It would be nice to have a fast-food restaurant that appealed more to kids," she said.

Steve Eberhardt, an analyst with MillerCoors, was drinking Leinenkugel beer and answering e-mails on his laptop computer as he recently set up shop at a Fletcher's Wharf table before he flew back to Milwaukee on Midwest Airlines.

"I don't shop at airports," Eberhardt said, so it doesn't bother him that Humphrey lacks retail shops. But he does enjoy being on a first-name basis with the Fletcher's wait staff.

Liz Fedor • 612-673-7709

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