BISMARCK — Air travel is on the up and up in North Dakota.
Of the eight commercial airports in the state, seven have seen more passengers boarding planes over the previous year. The two largest operations, Fargo's Hector International Airport and the Bismarck Municipal Airport, have experienced greater than 10% growth, according to data from the state's Aeronautics Commission.
The past year has been the busiest point for the state's airports since the height of western North Dakota's oil boom in 2014 and 2015. Aeronautic Commission director Kyle Wanner said cheaper ticket prices due to low fuel costs, consistent service to destinations across the country and an overall strong state economy have likely caused the rise in demand for air travel.
The growth means more flights, greater capacity on planes, and eventually, more routes to and from North Dakota, Wanner said.
Williston experienced the largest annual growth in air travel with 20% more boardings over the past year. The city closed the more than 70-year-old Sloulin Field International Airport on Oct. 10 and opened the new Williston Basin International Airport to handle the greater demand.
Only the Jamestown Regional Airport has attracted fewer passengers over the last year. Airport director Katie Hemmer said the drop in Jamestown occurred due to a March flight schedule change that passengers found unfavorable. The change was restored at the end of May, and the airport saw a record number of passengers in August, Hemmer said.
The Grand Forks International Airport, the state's fourth largest by volume of passengers, has seen some growth over previous years but at a more sluggish pace than Fargo, Bismarck and Minot. Wanner said this is largely due to the relative weakness of the Canadian dollar in recent years. When the Canadian dollar was stronger against its American counterpart earlier in the decade, the airport attracted many more passengers from southern Manitoba than it does now.
Gearing up for the holidays
Late November through the New Year is commonly believed to be the busiest travel period of the year, but Hector International Airport executive director Shawn Dobberstein said his staff treats the holiday season like business as usual. The five-gate airport is more bustling than normal, but Dobberstein said March is actually the busiest month of the year.
Still, Dobberstein said early mornings during the holidays are "extremely busy" with a high volume of flights taking off between 4:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. To avoid any hitches, Dobberstein advises passengers to arrive at the airport at least 90 minutes before their flight and download flight information on their smartphones. He also said travelers should avoid wrapping gifts prior to their trips because airport security requires them to be unwrapped.
Wanner said this December would likely be the busiest since 2014 with projections suggesting 106,000 passengers will board flights during the month in North Dakota.
Delays and cancellations
Many travelers fear a flight delay or cancellation will interrupt their holiday plans, but at several top North Dakota airports, that's a fairly remote chance.
Of the eight commercial airports currently operating in North Dakota, Grand Forks International led the way in proportion of flights that left on time between September 2018 and September 2019. More than 85% of flights took off when scheduled, and only 2% of flights were canceled, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation.
Prior to its permanent closure, Williston's Sloulin Field International Airport had the best on-time rate in the state.
Fargo's Hector International had an on-time rate slightly below the national average of 79%, while the Jamestown Regional Airport came in around 78% with a cancellation rate of more than 7%. There was no data available for the Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport.