Officials Work to Land Jet Service in Aberdeen, South Dakota

Aberdeen city leaders, airport officials and others are headed to Minneapolis today to talk with Northwest Airlines about improving air service to the Hub City.

Led by airport board chairman Chuck Bensen, the group will meet for a little more than an hour at the Northwest headquarters to sell airline officials on bringing partial jet service to Aberdeen Regional Airport.

Bensen said Wednesday that the airport board wants to partner with the airline on a federal grant application.

The airport is applying for about $500,000 from the small community air service development grant program.

Bensen said that with Northwest on board as a partner, the airport's chance of getting the grant money is much greater. He added that the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, worked a similar deal, successfully bringing in Northwest regional jet service.

Last year, Aberdeen unsuccessfully applied for the same air service grant. Sioux Falls was awarded the funds for the second straight year.

Dave Osborn, city transportation director, said only 40 small community air service grants ranging from $500,000 to $2 million are available each year nationwide.

"We're going with the hope that (Northwest) will partner with Aberdeen in applying for this grant," Bensen said. "We're hoping they'll provide jet service at least one flight a day on a consistent basis."

Also hoping to help promote Aberdeen and push the jet service angle will be representatives of 3M, the Aberdeen Development Corp. and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, all of which use the airport regularly.

Bensen said the hope is to get Northwest to bring a regional jet to Aberdeen for the first flight of the day. Ideally it would fly in as the last inbound flight of the night and leave as the first flight of the morning.

That first flight out tends to be overbooked, Bensen said, causing people to get bumped to the next flight, which is often full as well.

One of the major goals of improving service at Aberdeen Regional is to attract more passengers, and prevent passenger leakage to Sioux Falls and Fargo, N.D., both of which have jet service to Minneapolis.

If Aberdeen's airport is awarded the grant money, the board would use it to subsidize the jet service by buying any empty seats.

The 50-seat regional jets are bigger, faster and quieter than the 34-seat, prop-driven Saab 340s that currently shuttle passengers to and from Minneapolis, the only destination available from the city's airport.

"We want to make Northwest a strong partner with Aberdeen," Bensen said. "They've always been good to us. They've been dependable and we want to let them know we're still here."

Also part of the delegation, Aberdeen Mayor Mike Levsen said he is behind the plan and the city wants to show its support.

"We want to get face to face with the people who make the air-service decisions regarding Aberdeen," Levsen said. "I'm excited about the opportunity."

The mayor said he was hopeful the city could pull off the deal.

"We'll gauge the possibilities by the reactions we get," he said.

Northwest officials were quiet on what the meeting's results may be.

"We've been invited to meet with local officials and look forward to hearing what they have to say," said Thomas Becher, a Northwest spokesman.

Osborn said the group will have 60-90 minutes to pitch its ideas to Northwest and discuss how to improve air service to Aberdeen.

He said others going to the meeting include airport board member Steve Kaiser, the airport's engineering consultant Terry Helms, marketing consultant Mark Siksel, Jim Barringer of the Aberdeen Development Corp. and Alice Harwood of the BIA.

Osborn said the group will focus on promoting Aberdeen and showing Northwest the value of investing in the community.

Previous efforts to enhance the city's air service have revolved around luring a second carrier to take passengers west or south.

While the second carrier idea hasn't been abandoned, Bensen said, "This isn't a good economic time to be looking for a second carrier."

For a short time, Aberdeen had United Express service direct to Denver, but that was halted for lack of passengers, Bensen said.

"If we can do this, maybe other carriers will look at us and see that we're a good market," he said. "Right now I have high hopes of an upbeat meeting."

No decision is expected immediately on the jet service, but expectations are high going into the meeting, airport officials said.