Aberdeen Airport in Holding Pattern

Less than a week after receiving word the city had been selected for nearly a half-million dollars in federal grant funds, the airport's airline service task force met Tuesday to begin planning its strategy for the money.

The consensus was that Aberdeen should not make a big push to use the funds to bring jet service to the airport until the time is right - and that might be several months off.

As the meeting broke up, the task force received a phone call from consultant Mark Siksel of the Portland Ore.-based Siksel Consulting, who helped the airport board with the grant application.

Siksel told the group it would be best not to do anything until the mechanics' strike at Northwest Airlines is resolved.

By acting before a strike resolution is reached, Siksel said, the airport is likely not to get much of a response and may not get what it wants in the long run.

Since the grant application was filed in April, the plan for the $450,000 that was awarded to Aberdeen has been to use the money to woo at least partial jet service to Aberdeen Regional Airport.

Northwest has not made any commitment to bring jet service to Aberdeen, though U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said last week he expects the airline to start jet service in the Hub City within the next six months.

The grant received by Aberdeen was one of 37 Small Community Air Service Development Grants handed out by the U.S. Department of Transportation last week, totaling more than $18 million.

Time not a factor: Dave Osborn, city transportation director, told the task force that the city has three years to use the money, so time is not a major factor at this point.

Ideally, the airport would like to use the grant funds to secure jet service for one outgoing flight a day - preferably the first flight of the day.

Currently, Mesaba Airlines - Northwest's regional partner in Aberdeen - shuttles passengers from the Hub City to the Twin Cities, where both airlines are based, in 34-seat Saab 340 turboprop planes.

City officials are hoping that the first flight of the day can be replaced with a 55-seat Canadair Regional Jet, which is quieter and more comfortable than the prop-driven aircraft.

One possible monkey wrench in the city's plans is the fact that Northwest has already redeployed many regional jets to replace gas-guzzling DC-9s in an effort to cut costs.

Northwest is also planning to cut one daily flight out of Aberdeen as it restructures its schedules to further reduce operating costs.

Osborn said the plan for now is to remain in a holding pattern until the strike is finished.

"He told us to be cautious, be optimistic and move forward," Osborn said of Siksel's comments. "We're not down and out, we're just holding for now."

During the meeting, Airport Board Chairman Chuck Bensen pointed out that Aberdeen is a profitable route for Northwest, and that may prove to the city's advantage once it's ready to contact the airline.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press