N.D. airport boardings soar along with needsAs with other aspects of North Dakota’s booming economy, aviation in parts of the state went from a trickle to a torrent, and airports are working to keep up.
By: Christopher Bjorke, Grand Forks Herald
As with other aspects of North Dakota’s booming economy, aviation in parts of the state went from a trickle to a torrent, and airports are working to keep up.
“You’re talking about going from crawling to running in a short period of time,” said Grand Forks Airport Director Patrick Dame. “We’ve just skipped the walking.”
Boarding numbers at airports across the state are up 22 percent in the first half of the year compared to the same time last year.
Grand Forks’ growth matches the state number, but boardings at western North Dakota airports are skyrocketing: up 73.5 percent in Dickinson, 62.8 percent in Minot and 41 percent in Williston.
Larry Taborsky, director of the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission, said the robust numbers are nothing new.
“The surprising part is they keep going up at the same percentage,” he said. “It just keeps going.”
The strong growth in airport activity has been common in the state in recent years and is usually attributed to the oil boom in western North Dakota and the state’s overall healthy economy.
Airports in the state have invested in their infrastructure to accommodate increasing pas-senger volumes, added flights and airlines entering new markets. But Taborsky sees a paral-lel between airports and the way the build-out of other infrastructure has been outpaced by the growth of development in western North Dakota.
“It’s a similar situation as the roadways,” he said. “The numbers are taking a toll on the terminals.”
Other infrastructure, such as runways and parking, needs improvements to serve the in-creased activity, according to Taborsky.
Minot International Airport, the third busiest in the state, has had 106,863 boardings in the first half of 2012.
“We believe it was intended for somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000” per year, said Andy Solsvig, airport director.
“It’s very tight, very congested,” he said.
Volume in Minot spiked in mid-2010 when United Airlines began service to the city and Delta added new flights, according to Solsvig. The terminal was designed for two airlines but it has three with Allegiant Air.
The airport has also received overflow volume that the smaller Williston Airport cannot handle, Taborsky said.
“We’ve tried to work with the airlines to spread things out” and avoid multiple flights ar-riving or departing at the same time, Solsvig said.
The airport is planning a new $40 million terminal to be complete in 2014 or 2015 and overall improvements are projected to cost around $103 million.
In Grand Forks, the numbers are healthy, but not as dramatic as in the west. It has had 69,436 boardings in 2012, compared to 56,722 at the same point last year and 39,156 in 2007. United Airlines will begin daily flights to Denver in October, but Dame said the airport can handle added traffic.
It opened its new terminal in 2011 and is completing a parking expansion of 135 new spaces. The new building was designed to be expanded if necessary, and the airport is evaluating its parking capacity.
“We’re going to also be looking at additional overflow parking,” Dame said. “Right now we’re in good shape to accommodate added traffic.”
In Grand Forks, he said, added services have brought more customers and the strength of the Canadian dollar has attracted more travelers from Manitoba.
Taborsky said he expects airport infrastructure to be an issue in the upcoming legislative session. The Airport Association of North Dakota is working on an assessment of airports’ needs in the state, and planning what to present to legislators when the session starts in January.
Dame said the state’s economy will continue to attract airlines as growth at airports in many other states is negative or flat.
“We all see growing pains as a result of that,” he said. “Airlines want to go where they can make money.”
Call Bjorke at (701) 780-1117; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1117; or send email to email@example.com.