Growing pains strike as oil booms

North Dakota’s Bakken oil boom bears a strong likeness to the California Gold Rush. In both cases, the discovery of a hot commodity spurred a feverish migration of workers to a sparsely populated area.

Today as rig workers, roughnecks and roustabouts flock to North Dakota to work on its nearly 200 drilling rigs, the explosion of activity has tapped more than the oil fields themselves. And, as communities in the heart of the oil patch find themselves in a frenzy to match infrastructure to the demands of a burgeoning population, the region’s airports struggle with the same.

Airports in western North Dakota rank among the fastest growing in the United States and have set passenger boarding records month after month for three straight years. As a result, many need tens of millions of dollars for infrastructure upgrades, according to Kyle Wanner, aviation planner with the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission. The oil boom, he says, has delivered passenger traffic volumes that many state airports are ill-equipped to handle.

Consider Minot International Airport. This airport’s 34,000-square-foot terminal, complete with two gates and small ramp, was designed to handle up to 100,000 passenger boardings per year. But today this airport sees nearly 220,000 enplanements annually.

Business is also booming at Sloulin Field International Airport, where in September the Williston-based airport saw a 247 percent jump in enplanements over September 2012; traffic this airport, located in the epicenter of the oil boom, was never meant to see, emphasizes Airport Manager Steven Kjergaard.

“Our terminal was built to handle approximately 8,000 people a year,” he stresses, “and we’re doing that in a month!”

Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport services western North Dakota, eastern Montana and northwest South Dakota, and it too doubled its traffic within two years. “We have about 50,000 passengers coming through every year; nearly three times the capacity the terminal is designed to handle,” says Matthew Remynse, Dickinson airport manager. “Our terminal is designed for 36,000 passengers a year, and set up for one regional jet at a time.”

The growing pains these airports are wrestling with are becoming as commonplace as the oil rigs themselves, says Wanner, who notes airports are hard hit as droves of job seekers flock to the region. Most North Dakota airports were never designed to handle the volumes of traffic they are now, he explains, and must find a way to fund sorely needed projects and put them on the fast track to completion.

“They needed these improvements yesterday,” says Wanner. “Growth problems are usually a good thing to have, but you want that growth to be 3 to 5 percent a year, so you can plan for needed infrastructure changes. When your growth is 50 to 100 percent in a year, it strains the entire system.”


Fast track the future

The State of North Dakota stakes a claim to 11.5 cents of every dollar the oil industry earns, which has produced revenues of more than $2 billion to date. The state designates a portion of these funds for infrastructure improvements that include new roads, hospitals and schools, and airport, water and sewer updates.

Recently, the state government earmarked $60 million of this money to improve airports in western North Dakota; $28 million of which has already been allocated to specific projects.

Minot airport emerged the big winner in this money “lottery.” The airport received $21 million to offset the costs of a $85 million terminal revamp program, which includes a new passenger terminal building, apron and access road improvements, moving the snow removal building, and connecting Taxiway D to the apron. Airport Director Andrew Solsvig says the airport was able to quickly jump on the state funding opportunity because officials had begun work on the proposed projects long before they knew how they would pay for them. He explains when things began rocking and rolling in 2011, and airport traffic doubled, the airport assembled a stakeholder group to hasten a terminal area study.

The resulting research projected growth that put Minot on pace to handle the same number of passengers as airports in Sioux Falls and Fargo; both of which have terminals between 118,000 and 175,000 square feet, four or more gates, and more than 1,000 parking spaces.

The terminal study proposed three potential options for improvements:

• Moving the entire terminal and related facilities to the opposite side of the airport, for $350 million, with a completion date of around 2020;

• Expanding the 20-year-old terminal building for $100 million, which would be finished by 2016 or later; or

• Building a new terminal near the current facility to take advantage of existing buildings, runways and parking lots, for an estimated $85 million with a target completion date of Fall 2015.

Construction has already begun on Option 3, which includes a new passenger terminal building and apron, terminal access roads and a parking lot. The new terminal will boast enough counter space for up to six airlines, room for three security lines, a hold room area large enough for six gates, a restaurant and bar, a kid’s play area, administrative offices and conference rooms, room for five car rental facilities, and an inline baggage system.

“All of this is possible because we completed our terminal study in four months, and started design immediately after that was finished,” says Solsvig.

But though the airport accelerated the project’s design, Solsvig says their work might have been futile had stakeholders been unable to convince state and FAA officials that renovations and revenue were needed. “We had to educate them about why Minot needed to become a priority,” he says. “We invited them for site visits and gave them tours. We shared our statistical data and information, but still it was a challenge.”

Their efforts paid off with the state agreeing to fund approximately half of the project, and the FAA and the City of Minot picking up the rest.

Had Minot not seen the writing on the wall when it did, this scenario might have played out very differently. “The city was very forward-thinking,” says Wanner, who adds the result is nothing short of impressive. “Projects like this can take up to 10 years from planning to completion,” he says. “The fact that Minot started in 2011 and will finish in 2015, is definitely fast tracking the process.”

Sloulin Field International Airport is also in line for terminal improvements, says Kjergaard, who has headed this airport for three years. Early on he met with city leaders about relocating and expanding the airport, and he recalls this conversation took some by surprise because enplanements had held steady for years.

Their quick thinking before the enplanement push began enabled the airport to complete site selection, start a master plan and embark on the environmental phase of the proposed project. Currently they are waiting on FAA approvals for their draft EAAs and site selection study. The FAA has recommended Williston participate in the Letter of Intent (LOI) program to fund the airport expansion and relocation, which will pay for approximately 60 percent of the estimated $200 million project.

Dickinson’s relief is at least five years away, says Remynse. The airport is in the midst of a master plan that forecasts it will have approximately 120,000 passengers a year at its peak then level off at 90,000 to 100,000 passengers when oil drilling settles into the production phase. The plan identifies needed improvements for the terminal, runway and taxiway. If the FAA approves the project, the airport terminal complex will move to a new location near the current runway. “If everything goes off without a hitch, we could start construction as early as 2017, finishing up in 2018,” Remynse says.


Coping with challenges

With new terminals and other improvements up to five years in the future, airport directors have had to get creative as they cope. “They are doing the best they can,” says Wanner. “It’s rough. They have to plan differently, and users of the system have to be able to adjust for the accommodations the airports are able to provide.”

Secure hold rooms at many airports were virtually bursting at the seams. Williston, for instance, had 41 chairs, which was fine when Great Lakes Airlines launched just three Embraer 120 flights a day. Today there may be three flights leaving within 15 minutes of each other. The airport addressed seating concerns by adding a Williams Scotsman double-wide trailer to the secure hold area.

Dickinson also put a 40-foot by 24-foot modular building on its hold room. When both Delta Air Lines and United Airlines announced their intentions to come to the airport, the existing hold room could only accommodate 50 people at a time. But with planes taking off within 15 minutes of each other all day long, if delays occurred, the minimum capacity required was 124. Dickinson also added a modular building for baggage, which connects to the terminal via conveyor.

Minot also found its hold room overflowing. This airport has modified its existing building twice, claiming a conference room and taking space from the lobby to increase the hold room’s size. “It’s still really tight,” Solsvig says. “There are situations where it’s so congested in the hold room that it’s standing room only.”

Another key area airports had to address is parking. “Parking is crazy,” says Solsvig. “For awhile people parked wherever they wanted, even in a ditch, and it was impossible to keep an accurate inventory of anything.”

Minot’s main lot offers 450 paved parking spots, but over the last three years maintenance workers added crushed gravel to boost parking to 550 spaces. An airside overflow lot also offers parking in a pinch. “It’s just dug up grass and gravel, and not even officially a lot, but it works,” Solsvig says, noting the airport averages 650 vehicles a day but can peak at 1,100 vehicles over the holidays.

Dickinson addressed its parking crunch by requiring travelers to pay for parking; a first in the airport’s history. The airport offers approximately 220 parking spots and averaged 175 cars in the parking lot when parking was free. “We added paid parking and we now average 225 cars in the parking lot; people are finding other ways to get to the airport,” Remynse says. “I feel blessed to have paid parking now. I don’t know what our parking lot would look like without it.”

For now, no one has had to repair runways, but all airports are closely monitoring their pavement for signs of rapid wear and tear. Remynse says it’s a continuous concern at Dickinson, where the airfield is rated for 43,000 pounds, but Delta operates regional jets rated at 53,000 pounds maximum take-off weight and United operates regional jets rated for 47,000 pounds maximum take-off weight.

“We have contracts with the airlines stating that the maximum weight of the aircraft is 53,000 pounds,” he says. “But that will have long-term effects on our pavement. We’re not seeing anything on the runways currently but we are seeing minor rutting on our taxiways. We’re watching it very closely.”

Williston rehabbed its runway in 2011 with a 2-inch overlay, and its weight restrictions hold strong at 25,000 pounds. Because Delta and United operate closer to 45,000 pounds, the City of Williston took responsibility for the pavement, and Delta and United took on responsibility for the aircraft “should an incident occur due to pavement failure,” says Kjergaard.

All three airport managers say the experience has been a wild ride, but one that has been a real thrill. “When you see regional jets come into a facility that has never had regional jets before, it’s a great feeling,” says Remynse. “When numbers come in at 100 to 200 percent over the year prior, and you’re able to work with what you have and handle it, it gives you a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment.”