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Devils Lake airport numbers soar to record heights

DEVILS LAKE--The Devils Lake Regional Airport is on its way to a record year as its passenger numbers continue to soar, a trend opposite of what most North Dakota airports are seeing this year.

DEVILS LAKE-The Devils Lake Regional Airport is on its way to a record year as its passenger numbers continue to soar, a trend opposite of what most North Dakota airports are seeing this year.

The airport boarded 486 passengers in September, according to numbers released this week by the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission, breaking another monthly record this year. Devils Lake has set a record every month this year except for one, and it's likely it will have enough passengers to break its record for yearly boardings, airport manager John Nord said this week.

The airport has boarded 4,776 passengers through September, more than 1,400 up from last year at that time. The most Devils Lake boarded in a year was in 2011 with 5,488.

Boarding numbers at the airport have been on an upward trend since Great Lake Airlines left Devils Lake in early 2014. After Great Lakes started flying from Devils Lake in 2012, the airport saw a drastic drop in numbers from its record year in 2011 to just shy of 3,000 in 2012 and 2,667 in 2013. SkyWest took over in 2014, and numbers began to climb slightly.

With United Airlines, Devils Lake likely will climb toward 6,000 boardings by the end of the year.

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Downward trend

Devils Lake has bucked a downward trend seen by most airports in North Dakota. The eight airports tracked by the Aeronautics Commission have boarded 776,534 passengers this year, a 12.83 percent drop from last year.

A drop in oil prices, which in turn has forced the energy sector to reduce its workforce in North Dakota, has no doubt had an effect on boarding numbers across the state.

The largest hit to boarding numbers, at least by percentage, has been seen at the Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport, which boarded 1,383 passengers in September, more than 2,100 fewer than September 2015. The airport has boarded 12,292 passengers this year, almost a third of what it boarded at this time last year.

The airport lost its connection to Minneapolis when Delta Airlines pulled out of Dickinson in December, and that played a large role in the decline of boardings, Aeronautics Commission Director Kyle Wanner said.

"When you completely remove an airline and a destination from an airport, that obviously has repercussions on the boardings at that airport," he said. "You have less seats, so you can't board aircraft if there aren't aircraft to board."

The numbers are difficult to compare because Dickinson had two airline services in September 2015 and now has one, Wanner said. January will present better comparison numbers, and he expects Dickinson could see a plateau or even some growth then.

Sloulin Field International Airport in Williston, which lost American Airlines to Houston, also has seen a decline in passenger numbers with 5,510 boardings in September, down 8,313 passengers in September 2015. So far this year, it has had 50,847 passengers, a 39.77 percent decrease from last year at that time.

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Grand Forks International Airport also saw a slight decline in September boardings with 8,853, dropping roughly 460 passengers from September 2015. Through September, the airport has boarded 96,608 fliers, an 8 percent drop from that time last year.

Fargo's Hector International Airport boarded 29,418 passengers in September, slightly down from 31,121 passengers in September 2015. It's also down in year-to-date numbers, boarding 292,738 passengers this year compared with 332,243 last year at this time.

Aside from Devils Lake, Bismarck and Jamestown are the only airports in the state that have seen increases this year. The Bismarck Airport boarded 21,802 passengers last month, a slight increase over the September 2015 boardings of 20,234. Through September, Bismarck had 197,064 boardings, 4 percent up from last year at that time.

That increase may be attributed to Dickinson losing Delta. With only one air service in southwestern North Dakota, passengers will travel to other airports if they present better deals and access to other cities.

The Jamestown Regional Airport saw the largest percentage increase from last year for September boardings for North Dakota airports, clocking in 930 boardings for a 57.89 percent increase. Jamestown also holds the highest increase for year-to-date boardings, hitting 8,360 passengers through September. That's a 48.89 percent increase over last year's numbers.

Million passengers

Though numbers are down, North Dakota still is seeing more boardings than it did pre-oil boom.

The Aeronautics Commission counted 483,911 passengers through September 2007. Year-to-date boardings steadily increased for four years, with North Dakota boarding 639,089 passengers through September 2011.

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Yearly totals jumped dramatically in 2012, going from 872,169 passengers in 2011 to more than a million boardings in 2012, a milestone for North Dakota. Those numbers topped off in 2014 with about 1.24 million boardings before dropping to 1.18 million in 2015.

"If you would go back as far as 2008 and look at our state system plan, we weren't supposed to surpass a million until the 2030s," Wanner said.

The holiday season is closing in, a time when airports are flooded with passengers who travel across the country to visit families. Wanner said he is confident North Dakota airports will board more than a million passengers by the end of the year, adding he is not worried about the decline at other airports since the state is ahead of projected growth.

"When you look at where we are to date and the historical numbers for the following months, we're pretty certain we will surpass that one-million mark," he said. "We had a huge influx obviously with the growth and the boom, and obviously we've come down a little bit, but we are still way ahead of where we were pre-boom."

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