Passenger increase could pay off for Iron Range Airport


Nov. 08--When the 10,000th paying passenger for 2010 boarded a plane Thursday at Range Regional Airport in Hibbing, there weren't any bells or whistles.

But there should have been.

At that moment, the airport rejoined the federal ranks of "primary airports," making it eligible for $1 million in grants for capital improvements.

When the airport has fewer than 10,000 revenue passengers annually, it's

eligible for just $150,000 in Federal Aviation Administration funding.

"So there's a big difference in those two numbers," said Shaun Germolus, executive director of the Chisholm-Hibbing Airport Authority. "It limits the amount of projects we can do."

The funding boost should help the airport's expansion of its terminal building. Germolus said a larger passenger holding area and baggage screening area are needed and are expected to cost a total of $4 million.

For the first time since 2005, the critical passenger threshold was reached when 130 passengers boarded a Sun Country passenger jet Thursday morning. The departing charter bound for a Nevada resort brought the total paying passenger count to 10,020.

While the airport's departing passengers total surpassed 10,000 in 2000 and 2005, it has hovered around 8,500 in recent years.

"A lot of it has to do with being down to two flights a day," Germolus said. "It produced long layovers in Minneapolis for people returning this way. There weren't as many connections, so people were driving to Duluth or Minneapolis (airports) to reduce those times."

Flight rates also fluctuated but are now more competitive, he said.

Airport officials credit the Air Service Enhancement program initiated a year ago for increasing the regional airport's passenger totals. Under the U.S. Transportation Department's Essential Air Service Program, a midday Delta Air Lines flight to and from Minneapolis was added a year ago, providing better connections.

Currently, the airport has three flights to Minneapolis weekdays and two on the weekends.

As of Thursday, Delta Air Lines had boarded 9,240 revenue passengers in Hibbing, up 27 percent over 2009. And with its renewed charter service, Sun Country airlines' flew 780 passengers.

By the end of the year, total paying customers flying from Hibbing should reach 12,000, Germolus predicted. An additional 3,000 departing passengers who don't pay aren't counted by the FAA. Most are among the 450 employees who work at Delta's airline reservation center in Chisholm.

"A lot of them are traveling for personal reasons or for training," Germolus said. "As employees, they can board as nonrevenue passengers, but only on standby. They don't bump people."