Despite Mesaba's Woes, Regional Airports Planning for Growth

The growth appears to be robust enough to overcome worries about recent short-term reductions in passenger traffic that have occurred because of Eagan-based Mesaba's financial troubles.

Mesaba Airlines may have filed for bankruptcy protection, but several regional Minnesota airports that rely on the carrier are either planning for expansion or have projects under way.

Several factors are converging that could make for busy construction seasons at state airports over the next couple of years. Increasing air traffic at several out-state airports, such as Bemidji, St. Cloud and Rochester, has been driven primarily by business growth.

The growth appears to be robust enough to overcome worries about recent short-term reductions in passenger traffic that have occurred because of Eagan-based Mesaba's financial troubles. In September, Mesaba, now operating as a Northwest Airlink affiliate, experienced a 58 percent decline in passengers compared with the same month last year at its 88 locations in the United States and Canada.

A smaller decline occurred at the eight Minnesota regional airports that rely on Mesaba flights. But the decline was enough to force several airport directors to readjust their growth projections for the immediate future.

Growth trumps carrier woes

Bemidji Regional Airport, the fourth busiest commercial hub in the state, has seen a 14 percent loss in passengers this year. Airport Director Harold Van Leeuwen Jr. predicts the trend may set back projected passenger growth by two to three years.

Despite that decline, the airport is completing an expansion and the reconstruction of its secondary runway; and plans are moving ahead to expand the airport's terminal to include a second gate.

"We made the decision to expand the airport to meet our anticipated future growth," Van Leeuwen said. "We're 44 percent undersized for what we need in terms of growth, and the expansion should bring us up to where we need to be for 20 years."

Despite the double whammy of airline bankruptcies and post-9/11 concerns over airline safety, the airport is projected to handle more than 65,000 passengers annually by 2020, more than double the 28,000 passengers this year.

The same is true for St. Cloud Regional Airport, where area business growth is expected to increase airport traffic significantly over the next decade.

Bill Towle, director of the St. Cloud airport, said the Federal Aviation Administration is considering the recommendations of a city-approved master plan that includes an expanded airport terminal, improved runway and new parking ramp.

Bemidji and St. Cloud - in the heart of the state's rapidly growing north-central corridor - are perhaps the Minnesota airports with the greatest need for long-range development. But other modest-sized airports find themselves in similar situations.

For some, expansion has as much to do with playing catch-up as preparing for the future.

Last week, crews at Falls International Airport in International Falls wrapped up construction on a 900-foot extension to the airport's main runway, a project that airport officials had requested for more than four years.

With the notable exception of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, most in-state airports that receive commercial flights get an average of $1 million a year in federal funding, forcing airport authorities to save up for several years to tackle major projects. Funding is also tied to the level of traffic airports receive. And with chronically low passenger volume throughout the country in 2002 and early 2003, some airports' project funds have lagged behind what was needed for continued growth.

"There were a large number of programs that had to be delayed throughout the state" as passenger levels and funding wavered in recent years, Van Leeuwen said.

State funding

Another reason some projects were delayed was the loss of $15 million in state aeronautics funding. The funding was suspended by the Legislature in 2003 to help balance the state budget, but lawmakers inserted a provision ensuring that the money would return on July 1, 2007.

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