Minnesota's regional airports are seeing signs of a resurgence

  • Article by: CURT BROWN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 4, 2014 - 10:00 AM

The smaller hubs see a resurgence: passenger growth, more flights and new facilities.

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Passengers watched the arrival of a flight from Phoenix in the terminal at the St. Cloud Regional Airport in anticipation of boarding.

Photo: JIM GEHRZ • jgehrz@startribune.com,

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Brad Goskowicz knows all about experiments. He runs a 90-person St. Cloud company that takes pure bacteria strains such as salmonella and ships them around the world for food- and water-safety testing.

When he heads to a meeting in Vietnam this week, he’ll drive 80 miles to the Twin Cities, fly to Chicago and then — some six hours later, if he’s lucky — he’ll fly to Asia. Come May, the Microbiologics CEO can bypass the Twin Cities altogether on similar trips when he takes part in a different kind of experiment, according to airline industry analysts.

St. Cloud has pledged $1 million in revenue guarantees, convincing SkyWest Airlines there will be enough fliers to bring daily out-of-state flights for the first time to an airport that sat dormant for three years. SkyWest will start its St. Cloud service May 6 with two daily flights to Chicago.

Bill Swelbar, an airline industry analyst at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sees an emerging trend in under-served communities making financial promises to woo carriers.

“I see more experiments like this one coming — and I call it an experiment because nothing is guaranteed,” Swelbar said. “But for smaller communities like St. Cloud that have suffered a loss of some or all of its service, this resumption is so good for them.”

Five years after Delta acquired Northwest Airlines and pulled the plug on service to airports such as St. Cloud’s, the state’s smaller airports might be poised for a comeback.

Duluth will add a fourth Chicago flight in June at an airport that opened a new $78 million terminal last year.

In Rochester, after five consecutive years of passenger declines amounting to a nearly 33 percent drop-off between 2007 to 2012, the number of total passengers inched up 4 percent last year.

Rochester owns its airport, but the Mayo Clinic has operated the facility for 80 years. A recent study revealed that only 12 percent of the 2,400 southern Minnesotans who fly daily use Rochester’s airport instead of driving up to the Twin Cities. But Rochester’s new airport manager, Marty Lenss, insists those numbers “show tremendous potential” for increasing what now stands at nine flights a day.

Even the state’s fourth and smallest international airport, up on the Canadian border in International Falls, landed $2 million in the governor’s bonding bill for a new terminal and customs clearing area. The current one, Mayor Bob Anderson said, is “the size of four telephone booths.”

He said celebrities such as Demi Moore like to clear customs in International Falls after over-the-pole flights to avoid attention. But when a Rolling Stones’ charter learned the terminal couldn’t accommodate their 50-member entourage, they landed elsewhere.

Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport still dominates with 33 million travelers a year, more than 100 times the passenger count of the state’s No 2 airport, in Duluth.

“But airports are invaluable, significant economic drivers for the communities they serve,” said Tom Werner, executive director of the Duluth airport. “If you want to attract or retain jobs in your region, whether you’re in Duluth, Rochester or St. Cloud, those companies want the ability to connect via affordable, reliable air service, so airports are a huge piece of the attract strategy.”

Change in philosophies

St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis remembers the day in 2009 when Delta sent a representative up with grim news. They were done dealing with St. Cloud. For years, Northwest, or later Mesaba, would run six flights a day, puddle-jumpers that would stop in Thief River Falls, Bemidji, Brainerd, St. Cloud and then MSP.

“The philosophy was different,” Kleis said. “Northwest’s philosophy was to bring people to its hubs. Delta’s philosophy, I believe, was: ‘You’ll get to the hub because you have no choice.’ ”

For executives such as Goskowicz, who does nearly half his business overseas, that change became a costly inconvenience.

“I have to pay mileage both ways for my executives and salespeople,” he said. “Take that 160 miles and add $22 a day to park.”

Throw in a 90-minute drive, often exacerbated with traffic snarls, and another 90 minutes to get through airport security lines. And top that off with airfare to Chicago.

  • related content

  • Graphic: Smaller airports by the numbers

    Monday March 3, 2014

    A look at passenger numbers for Duluth, Rochester and St. Cloud

  • Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport has 33 million annual travelers, but the waiting area at the St. Cloud airport, above, was full nevertheless, waiting for a flight to Arizona. Regional airports are seeing signs of recovery.

  • Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport serves 14 airlines

    Duluth: Delta, Allegiant, United

    Rochester: Delta, American Eagle

    St. Cloud: Allegiant, United in May

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