Buoyed by new routes opening this summer and the prospect of more business from the Mayo Clinic, the Rochester International Airport hopes to grow after several years of mostly flat or falling passenger counts.
The airport currently has two airlines with 16 total departures and arrivals daily, but by midsummer that will climb to three airlines and 26 daily departures and arrivals.
The Mayo Clinic also announced recently that its 30,000 Rochester employees will be directed to use the local airport for business travel rather than the larger Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, about 85 miles away.
“We’re excited about it,” airport executive director John Reed said of the new departures. “I think airlines are recognizing the importance of what’s going on in the Rochester area.”
As it stands, Delta Air Lines has three daily flights to and from the Twin Cities. The airline also has a daily flight each way between Rochester and Atlanta, its headquarters and largest hub.
Meanwhile, competitor American Airlines has four daily flights from Rochester to Chicago, and four from Chicago back to Rochester.
Starting June 8, United Airlines will launch service at Rochester with three daily flights in each direction between Rochester and Chicago’s O’Hare airport.
A month later, on July 5, Delta will start a 5:45 p.m. flight from Rochester to the Twin Cities and a 10 p.m. flight from Minneapolis to Rochester.
On July 9, Delta plans to add a morning flight to Atlanta and an evening flight from Atlanta back to Rochester.
George Hobica, the airline analyst behind Airfarewatchdog.com, said the move by United could help it build brand loyalty with customers flying to and from Rochester, also known by its airport code RST.
“Airlines are still very competitive and the passenger flying from, say, New York to RST one day on United might decide to fly another time from New York to LA on United rather than on AA or DL,” he said in an e-mail.
Hobica noted that United will use smaller regional jets with seating for about 45 passengers for the new Rochester service, so three daily flights may not be as much added capacity as people might assume.
Approximately 115,036 people boarded a plane in 2016 at Rochester International Airport, up 0.33 percent from 114,657 the year before, according to Tiana Rossow, RST spokeswoman. That’s not much growth, but it’s a marked improvement from the airport’s recent history, when passenger counts dropped by nearly one third from 2007 to 2012.
More local use
To encourage more local use of the airport, the “Fly RST” program asks local businesses to consider Rochester airport before sending employees north to Minneapolis for business flights.
Some 70 local businesses had joined the program when the Mayo Clinic announced recently that it would also make a concerted effort to steer its 30,000 employees to the local airport. Incoming employees from Florida and Arizona will be asked to use RST as well, said a Mayo spokesman.
“The new flights and routes align exceptionally well with the needs of our national and international destination patients and our plans for business development and growth,” Mayo spokesman Karl Oestreich said in a statement.
Exceptions will be granted to Mayo employees who live within 45 miles of MSP, he added.
The airport has begun a renovation that will expand its U.S. Customs presence and consolidate the ticketing desk and baggage claim area. The renovations will add more restrooms as well. It will be completed in about a year, according to Reed.
The renovations come as Rochester sees a boom in local construction driven by the $5.6 billion Destination Medical Center project, a 20-year plan to expand the Mayo Clinic and remake Rochester into a destination in its own right.
“You’re seeing a huge uptick in economic activity in Southeast Minnesota and one of the drivers of that is Destination Medical Center,” said Reed. “Look at all the building in Rochester right now.”
Using the local airport makes sense even if passengers pay a premium for tickets since they’re not paying for transportation to Minneapolis and can save 90 minutes of travel time, said Rob Miller, president of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce.
“You drive eight minutes and you get through security in two minutes,” he said of using RST. “Some of the stresses that you feel when traveling just go away.”
The addition of United Airlines flights will make it easier to connect to flights in Chicago that go on to New York and Washington, D.C., Miller said.
“I think we’ll continue to see expanded service,” he said.
An airline analyst said the new departures and arrivals at Rochester International are the best sign that airlines consider it a growth market.
“If they’re adding planes to Rochester then one can assume that’s one of their highest and best uses of Rochester,” said Robert Mann, an analyst and former airlines executive. “I would say that the demand is clearly there.”
The airport was established in 1928 by the Mayo Clinic.