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UND's flight operations help GFK rival the big boys

Thanks to a big boost from the UND aviation department, the Grand Forks International Airport is rivaling many of the biggest airports for the title of busiest in the country.

Thanks to a big boost from the UND aviation department, the Grand Forks International Airport is rivaling many of the biggest airports for the title of busiest in the country.

Dave Cink, air traffic manager, said the airport this year had 328,528 operations by the end of November -- each takeoff and landing counts as an operation. That's an increase of about 45 percent compared with 2008 and already about 90,000 operations more than the entire 2008 total.

This year's figures, which average to about 1,000 operations daily, were enough to rank the Grand Forks tower 23rd out of the nation's 514 towers.

To put it in perspective, Grand Forks beat some of the largest airports in the country: Memphis where FedEx is based; Daytona Beach and Orlando, two popular Florida vacation destinations; Seattle; and Washington National, the closest airport to D.C.'s downtown area.

And on a particularly busy day in June, the Grand Forks tower handled 2,014 operations -- enough to beat out the flight counts at both Dallas-Forth Worth and Denver International airports.

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December is traditionally one of the slowest months, but Cink estimates the airport will end the year with between 348,000 and 350,000 total operations. The 1991 record of 307,000 was surpassed by Nov. 7, he said.

But out of the 1,000 average daily operations, the airport's "air carrier" flights, including Allegiant, FedEx and Northwest, only account for 15 to 20 each day. "Our increase this year is really due to the increase at UND from the contract students," Cink said.

He said it's been a busy year in the tower, and 92 percent to 96 percent of the traffic they have is from UND's training fleet. "They're our biggest customer by far," he said.

Al Palmer, UND's director of flight operations, said the university's focus on international training has secured contracts with several countries. "That's brought in more students and more flight activity," he said.

The department will begin helicopter training in January for students from Saudi Arabia and is working with the country's Ministry of Interior on a five-year contract for airplane training that will bring another six students each year.

UND also offers a summer helicopter training program for West Point cadets at the airport.

Palmer said the department scheduled 119,000 flight training hours for fiscal year 2010, which began July 1. But by the end of the period, June 30, 2010, the actual number of hours will probably reach 125,000 because training is ahead of budget right now.

That's a big increase from the 110,000 hours budgeted the previous fiscal year.

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Part of this is because of a new east-to-west runway that came online Aug. 17. Before, the airport only had one runway facing that direction -- which effectively cut UND's operations in half on days with the wrong wind direction because planes need to take off and land into the wind.

Palmer said UND had to use other airports in the region in the past but now can do more training in Grand Forks no matter which way the wind blows. "It's going to be just as busy or busier next year," he said.

Patrick Dame, airport executive director, said 2009 was a big year for more reasons than just a new operations record. The airport also set a summer operations record and also began more flight carrier services that put Grand Forks on track to break more records.

"We want to break the 100,000 mark (of passengers flying out of the airport)," he said. "We're going to get very close in 2009, but I think we're going to surpass it in 2010."

Next year will be the first full year to include the Allegiant flights to Las Vegas and Phoenix, and Minneapolis flights will continue. Cink said he expects daily operations to remain fairly consistent next year, meaning Grand Forks might beat its new operations record.

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

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