The 4,001-foot, snow-lined runway at Airlake Airport in rural Lakeville was so quiet last week that a visitor could hear the snow crunch underfoot on a taxiway beneath the sunny, blue sky.

It’s not only winter weather that has hurt business at Airlake and the five other so-called reliever airports ringing the Twin Cities. The six, which “relieve” Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport by handling smaller plane traffic, have seen takeoffs, landings and sales of fuel and maintenance services nose dive as fuel prices soared and the recession hit them about three years ago.

Even before the recession, air traffic had been declining for years at the six relievers. Their operations have plummeted from 824,000 takeoffs and landings in 2000 to 377,000 in 2010, Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) records show.

But 2010 figures, just released, show the relievers are starting to recover, said officials at the MAC.

It owns the six airports in St. Paul, Lake Elmo, Blaine, Crystal, Eden Prairie and Lakeville. They serve mostly recreational pilots and small businesses, but three of them — Holman Field in St. Paul, Flying Cloud in Eden Prairie and the Anoka County-Blaine Airport — have the minimum 5,000-foot runways needed to handle corporate jets.

The airports generate about $250 million in annual economic activity and support about 2,260 full-time jobs locally, according to a 2005 study done for MAC. 

The recession, which began in December 2007, “really hit both [corporate and recreational] markets at about the same time, and things came to a grinding halt in a matter of months,” said Gary Schmidt , the MAC’s director of reliever airports. “Recreational pilots are feeling the impact and trying to save money by flying much less .… We may be on the road to recovery, but we won’t see it in general [recreational] aviation for a year or more.”

“It’s a pretty tough time in aviation,” said Mark Manthey , the MAC’s maintenance leadman at Airlake. He said about 80 percent of his flights are recreational and have dropped in recent years as plane fuel jumped more than $1 to $4.69 a gallon, as of last week.

Part of the dropoff can be traced to national trends, such as flight schools closing at small airports whose student pilots were attracted to colleges with less expensive training programs, Schmidt said. And recreational flying has declined as more people spend time on other hobbies, he said.

The MAC says about 1,500 aircraft — more than half of those registered in Minnesota — are based at the six airports. The metro area has one other reliever — Fleming Field, owned by South St. Paul — which has seen its traffic rise steadily for three years to 63,000 last year.

The MAC tracks the airports’ health in three ways: annual operations (take-off and landing traffic), fuel sales and general sales of plane maintenance and other services. The MAC charges businesses fees for fuel and other airport sales, and it leases airport property to pilots and businesses.

Hopeful signs

The MAC’s indicators contain a few hopeful signs, said Kelly  Gerads, assistant director for reliever airports. When December fuel sales are tallied, she expects the total to be about the same as 2009. Total operations — takeoffs and landings — dropped to about 377,100, but only by 3 percent from the prior year, the lowest annual decline in five years.

Two airports saw increased traffic last year and two others, Lake Elmo and Airlake, had very small declines.

The big winner was Anoka County-Blaine Airport. It had 11,000 more operations in 2010 and higher general sales for a second straight year, Gerads said. She noted that Lake Elmo had its best general sales since 2004, and Crystal and Flying Cloud almost recovered to 2009 sales levels.

Crystal also had more air traffic, recording an increase for the first time since 1998, when it handled about 179,000 operations. In 2010 Crystal had 44,229 flights, up about 1,900 from the prior year. 
Crystal, still among the state’s 10 busiest airports, had lost flights partly because two pilot training businesses closed, Schmidt said.  

Thunderbird Aviation, which offers pilot training and other services at Crystal and Flying Cloud airports, saw business pick up in August, said general manager Chris  Cope. “The phone started ringing and more people are interested again. There is pent-up demand coming back,” he said.

 The Anoka County and Flying Cloud airports have gained more corporate business since the MAC extended their runways to the 5,000-foot minimum needed by most corporate jets in 2008 and 2009, respectively, Schmidt said.

Holman Field, with a 6,700-foot runway near the Mississippi River in St. Paul, has had strong corporate business from 3M, United Healthcare, Hubbard Broadcasting and others. But Holman was closed by three serious floods in the past decade, Schmidt said.

That discouraged corporate jet owners, so the MAC built a dike that can repel floods expected to occur only once in 500 years, Schmidt said.

Jim Adams • 952-707-9996