The St. Cloud Airport hopes to woo airlines away from crowded MSP, but landing them isn't easy.
Darkened flight schedule monitors hang above a motionless baggage carousel across from an abandoned rental car counter. A vacant 200-seat terminal leads to a gate where a new jetway faces an empty tarmac.
Not long ago, Boeing 737s landed on the 7,000-foot runway at St. Cloud Regional Airport. These days it serves private planes and corporate jets.
But population growth north of the Twin Cities, and expectations of more airplane noise in the south metro, have now spurred calls to use St. Cloud as an alternative to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for some nonstop commercial flights to Chicago or other cities.
"I see no reason at all not to do this," said Mike Landy, a member of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC). "The dollars have been spent on this airport already."
The idea is being proposed as the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport embarks on a $2 billion, 20-year expansion expected to increase its air traffic by nearly 200,000 flights a year. Half of the increased flights will be over south Minneapolis, Richfield, Burnsville and other southern or southeastern suburbs -- places already bearing the brunt of airport noise.
"This is the time to stand back," said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who launched his political career as an airport noise opponent. "We should be asking the big questions now about whether there isn't another strategy ... a multiple airport strategy for this state that can diffuse traffic but also increase capacity and lift economic development outside the metro."
The call for a new approach comes as DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is reshaping the MAC. He picked attorney Daniel Boivin, Rybak's former delegate on the commission, as chairman.
"It's a tragedy that we have an empty airport up in St. Cloud," Boivin said recently. He stopped short of endorsing it as a viable alternative to MSP for some commercial flights.
Have airport, need airlines
Before St. Cloud could play a role, airlines would have to agree to fly there, and Sun Country and Delta pulled their flights in the past two years.
"The airlines pretty much call the shots," said Doug Kimsey, director of planning for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in Oakland, Calif., which has studied using satellite airports to reduce air traffic congestion in the San Francisco Bay area.
To entice airlines like American or United, St. Cloud is offering to waive some airport fees temporarily.
Rybak and Landy say the St. Cloud airport could be an option for people in the rapidly growing I-94 corridor northwest of the Twin Cities who want to fly without going through MSP. Sherburne County, for example, was the third-fastest growing county in the state in the past decade.
"The service in St. Cloud would take cars off the highway northwest of Maple Grove and toward the Twin Cities in certain hours," said Landy, who lives in St. Cloud and was first appointed to the commission by Gov. Jesse Ventura.
"Before we spend more money to [expand] at MSP ... I'd use the capacity we have on hand," Landy added.
Rybak's interest in St. Cloud is driven largely by concern that expansion at MSP will greatly increase noise over nearby neighborhoods. Before he was mayor, he led anti-noise demonstrators clad in pajamas frustrated with night flights.
"The current plan is not anticipating what kind of impact this is going to have on neighborhoods," he said.
The proposal calls for increasing gates and parking, but not adding a runway. Aircraft departures and arrivals are expected to expand from 435,383 in 2010 to 630,837 by 2030, although those projections could be lower if the smallest and noisier regional jets are phased out.
Seventy percent of the airport's takeoffs and landings will occur over south Minneapolis and the southwest and southeast suburbs.
Airplane noise averaging at least 60 decibels -- a level that qualified homes for government insulation programs in the past -- is expected over an additional 11 square miles containing 9,000 homes. The noise will move farther southwest in Richfield, push west of Lake Harriet into the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis and move farther into some southern suburbs.
"Even if you believe the assumption that planes are going to get dramatically quieter, there will be more of them," Rybak said. "So instead of having a few large booms every few minutes, you'll have an almost ongoing onslaught of low-level noise."
Rybak favors changing the law giving the MAC jurisdiction over airports 35 miles from the city halls of Minneapolis and St. Paul. He wants Dayton to recast the MAC as a "Minnesota Airports Commission" to include oversight of airports in St. Cloud and Rochester, and envisions Rochester linked to the Twin Cities by high-speed rail one day.
Dayton declined to comment on the proposal. Boivin said it's something worth considering, "if a statewide aviation strategy means we can help grow that airport and lessen noise ... at our airport." But he's cool to the MAC assuming responsibility over St. Cloud.
"If that involves taking over an airport that's empty ... I'd have to take a look at it," he said. "The last thing I want is empty airports."
From growth to quiet skies
For years, Sun Country flew 162-seat 737s from St. Cloud to gambling resorts in Laughlin, Nev., and Delta flew a 34-seat Saab 340 several times a day between MSP and St. Cloud.
But a lousy economy, rising fuel prices and changing airline practices hurt. Delta pulled out at the end of 2009. When the Transportation Security Administration pulled its officers in 2010, Sun Country split.
The new $5 million terminal and a $17 million runway and safety upgrade -- built with federal and state airport user fees and local sales taxes -- were done well before the charter and airline pulled out.
"St. Cloud wasn't a profitable market for us," said Delta spokesperson Kristin Baur, citing its closeness to MSP.
But St. Cloud airport director William Towle sees it filling a role other than a feeder to MSP. He is seeking carriers to provide non-stop service to Chicago or Denver, believing the popular routes would find a market along the I-94 corridor.
"As we make pitches to American Eagle and United Express ... not only do we mention our population, but we couple that with, 'You're not going to pay landing fees and rent for at least a year,' " Towle said.
"They haven't said yes, they haven't said no," he said.
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504