NWA Financial Issues Could Worsen Grand Forks Airport Numbers

Some local leaders have grown alarmed by this, and one of them has begun exploring the idea of subsidizing air travel using sales tax dollars.


Jan. 16--Over the past five years, as air travel boomed throughout North Dakota, it has largely stagnated at Grand Forks International Airport, a situation that some fear could worsen with Northwest Airlines' financial troubles.

Some local leaders have grown increasingly alarmed by this and, one of them, City Council President Hal Gershman has begun exploring the idea of subsidizing air travel using sales tax dollars.

Given that the airport is a major asset for attracting new companies here and that the level of air service suffers when passenger boardings drop, he reasoned that it might be time to use the city's economic development dollars to keep boardings up.

Air service, he said, is "not about the vitality but the viability of the region."

For air travelers, that might take the form of, say, free parking. Parking is one of many cost factors, including tickets, that might influence a traveler to choose to fly out of Fargo's airport, the nearest competitor.

Airport authority vice chairman Rich Becker seemed cautious about the proposal: "We're very open and have consider many, many things that collectively may have an impact but individually probably do not."

The implication is subsidies alone won't help, but the authority doesn't have an alternative other than the usual use-it-or-lose-it urging.

Brad Beyer, the airport authority's chairman, didn't return repeated calls for comment.

Not much growth

So how bad is it?

The Grand Forks airport's numbers, taken alone, would not seem dire.

Boardings have been steady, fluctuating between 85,000 and 90,000 for several years, according to data collected by the state's Aeronautics Commission. Last year, Grand Forks boardings totaled 87,190, which is 322 more than in 2000, the year before the attacks of Sept. 11 crippled the airline industry.

But when compared with other North Dakota airports, Grand Forks' recovery seemed down right sickly. Altogether, airports statewide have seen a 17 percent increase since 2000. Grand Fork's numbers put it dead last among major commercial airports and second to last among all airports.

The fear is that the stagnation here might not remain that way for long.

This past summer, a study of area residents' travel habits commissioned by the Aeronautics Commission found that the airport was losing a third of potential passengers to other airports. Fargo's got nearly 14 percent, while Minneapolis-St.Paul got more than 17 percent. Other airports got 2 percent.

Northwest Airlines, as an effect of its recently declared bankruptcy, also has reduced air service, cutting two flights. It was apparently a market-driven decision as the planes tend to leave Grand Forks only half full.

Aside from saving money, convenient scheduling is the other main reason local travelers choose other airports.

Competition

Competition is a big problem for Grand Forks' airport, according to both Becker and Gershman. There's too much of it where it's not needed and not enough where it is.

Grand Forks' airport is just a bit too close to Fargo's so it doesn't take a really great deal to convince a local traveler to choose the latter. Too often, Fargo comes out on top because it has competing airlines, Northwest and United Airlines.

"We're only an hour away from another airport with two airlines and much more frequency (of flights)," said Becker.

The Grand Forks airport does have an informal agreement with Northwest to match prices here with those for flights from Fargo so, theoretically, travelers here get the benefits of competition without a second airline.

Indeed, Gershman said, the average price differential between Fargo and Grand Forks isn't that much - just a few dollars in many cases - though many travelers might not believe it.

Becker agrees that "Northwest tries very hard to keep price differential as even as possible already." But, he added, that there are so many factors involved in pricing that it can be a hit-and-miss proposition for Grand Forks travelers to get the exact same price.

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