Reliever Airports Looking For Relief

The Metropolitan Airports Commission credits its six so-called reliever airports with infusing the Twin Cities economy with $1.4 billion annually.

Franco Fiorillo wants to get his rural Lakeville airport on the map.

Single-engine planes dot the dandelion-covered field in front of the tiny terminal, and a steady stream of Cessnas take off and land on the small runway. It's a busy weekday morning at Airlake Airport, but Fiorillo thinks it could be a whole lot busier.

He wants to build an executive hangar for corporate clients, extend the runway and construct smaller rental hangars on the far end of the property to boost business.

"Right now we're the orphan, the dying orphan," said Fiorillo, who runs Airlake's Aircraft Resource Center with his son Tony. The center provides aviation fuel, flight training, maintenance and aircraft sales.

"The (improvements) would give us that push to be successful. We're trying to turn this around, to get this airport to stand on its own," he said. "It's the investment that's needed."

And that's the rub: the money that's required to make it happen.

The Metropolitan Airports Commission credits its six so-called reliever airports with infusing the Twin Cities economy with $1.4 billion annually. But the small airports collectively make little if any money themselves, and the MAC, which actually owns and governs the airports, appears to be tiring of subsidizing them.

The future of the airports, which deflect small airplane traffic away from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, has been under review for months. A MAC task force charged with formulating new policy for the system could reshape how the airports are run and make them financially independent.

"We've known the MAC is trying to cut the ties between the big and smaller airports," said Jacob Hedberg, a line worker at Airlake, the system's second-smallest airport.

The metro area's six-airport reliever system is one of the nation's largest. In 2004, planes took off and landed at them more than 628,000 times compared to 513,000 times at the international airport. Hobby pilots and corporate jets are the airports' main users, along with flight students and instructors.

In 2004, operations at the reliever airport system ran a deficit of more than $800,000. But because of recent user fee increases, this year is the first that those total costs are not in the red at least so far.

Although some airports, such as Airlake and Lake Elmo, lose money, others are making enough to cover their losses. But the MAC pays most capital costs, and spends $6 million to $11 million annually depending on who's counting on the airports.

That may be too much for the agency's commissioners.

The task force's recommendations for how to make all the airports pay for themselves are expected by year's end.

Nothing is off the table including the eventual closing of one or more of the lesser-performing airports, said MAC commissioner Jack Lanners, who's leading the task force.

"In a nutshell, this task force came just in time. While some aspects of the reliever airport system are first-class and state-of-the-art, others are quite neglected," he said. "The system is in desperate need of review, not only for its viability but for its long-term operations."

In a memo to commissioners this summer, Lanners identified three airports Flying Cloud, St. Paul Downtown and Anoka County/Blaine as the future of corporate jet relief.

"(These) are the airports that will, logically, consume our time and attention and the bulk of our expenditures for the foreseeable future," he wrote.

The airports in Crystal, Lake Elmo and Lakeville are to be watched and evaluated.

Pilots and airport personnel want to keep using all of the airports.

Although the airport operators doubt the task force will recommend closing any of the facilities, they say the MAC's steep rent hikes and fee increases, which took effect in January, threaten to put them out of business.

"You can't get blood out of a turnip. There gets to be a point where you just can't make it anymore," said Tim Ashenfelter, owner of ASI Jet Center at Flying Cloud Airport the system's busiest in Eden Prairie.

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