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Up, up and away for Grand Forks International Airport boardings

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Even after Grand Forks International Airport added 70 to 100 additional parking spaces with its move to the new Byron L. Dorgan Terminal last August, the airport suffered a parking crunch in March, with some passengers resorting to leaving their vehicles on the grass because of a lack of nearby spaces.

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"We even had people parked at the old service building and were shuttling them over," said Patrick Dame, executive director of the Grand Forks Regional Airport Authority.

But the parking crunch was less of a problem than a sign of booming business -- 14,582 passengers flew out of the airport in March, up about 33 percent from a year before and enough to shatter the previous monthly record of 12,715 passengers set in July 1992.

A busy month

Dame said much of the boom last month was driven by the "substantial" growth of Allegiant Air in the past year.

The low-cost airline ramped up its weekly flights from six to 12 last month, with four flights every week to each destination city of Las Vegas, Phoenix/Mesa and Orlando, Fla. All together, he said Allegiant had 53 flights from Grand Forks last month -- more than double the 22 flights it offered in March 2011.

Delta Air Lines also is "remaining strong" here, he said, and provided six daily flights from Grand Forks to Minneapolis last month.

Dame said the increase in flights came about during the March spring break travel season, both for Canadian and American passengers, which brought even more customers through the Grand Forks terminal to get to their vacation destination.

And even with the historically warm winter, he said many local residents still followed through on their plans to take a "warm vacation" to a less cold climate in March.

Dame said now that the spring break season is over, the airport has seen relief from the parking crunches that occurred a few days last month.

"We don't want to discourage people from coming out to the airport to park," he said. "We have made space for anybody and everybody who comes out there to park."

Dame said the airport has plenty of room to expand parking in the future if necessary, and officials continue to analyze parking needs for travelers.

Busy all over

Airports across North Dakota have experienced record or near-record business in recent years as the strong economy and booming energy development in the Oil Patch have led to more travel.

Airline boardings in the state totaled 872,169 last year, a record for North Dakota and an increase of 9.2 percent compared to 2010.

Dame said the growth of North Dakota's economy and population prompted a 12 percent increase in the number of available seats in the airline market across the state now compared to this time last year.

Much of that growth has happened in the west, especially in markets near the Oil Patch, but he said it also has boosted passenger numbers in the Red River Valley.

"As business continues to grow and the need to get in and out of North Dakota continues to grow, you're going to see growth patterns, in my opinion, in all of the Dakota cities, not just the western market," he said.

The Grand Forks airport had 96,895 passenger boardings in 2009. But that jumped 21.6 percent to 117,855 in 2010, and went up another 1 percent to a record 118,984 last year.

Dame said business has been booming so far in 2012, with more than 10,000 passengers flying out each month in January, February and March for a total of 38,025 boardings -- the only time the airport has ever seen that level of activity during the first quarter of a year, according to records going back to 1988.

Reach Johnson at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send email to rjohnson@gfherald.com.

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