Growing pains strike as oil booms

North Dakota airports in the heart of the Bakken oil boom rush to meet escalating demands by putting improvement projects on the fast track

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.”

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