MAC Targets the Electioneers

July 23, 2008
Upgrades, customer service initiatives are underway as system readies for Republicans.

Twin Cities, MN — The Metropolitan Airports Commission’s (MAC) plans for the upcoming Republican National Convention (RNC) to be held here in September is a study of an airport reliever system and its maturing airports. St. Paul Downtown Holman Field and Flying Cloud Airport are in the process of upgrades for their corporate traffic. Anoka County-Blaine Airport is a microcosm of general aviation itself, with a new investment by Key Air focused on increasing business aviation activity. At Minneapolis-St. Paul International, the emphasis is on showing RNC traffic a high degree of customer service.

The third largest aviation system in the U.S., the MAC includes MSP and six reliever airports. It’s a governmental agency of the State of Minnesota, with commissioners appointed by the governor as well as designees of the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Gary Schmidt, director of reliever airports for MAC, says the system works especially well because of the amount of coordination that can be exercised over aviation in the area. “We can efficiently control the system, as well as develop it,” Schmidt says.

As far as the RNC is concerned, Schmidt says the impacts will be positive. “From our perspective, it is a pretty good thing,” he says. “We’ve had the Super Bowl here in the past; we’ve had other events here; so as far as MSP goes where a lot of the delegates will come through, they’ve gone through some of these types of events and I think they’re going to do a very good job.”

He says a greater issue will be the efficient handling of corporate traffic. “I don’t want someone to land at one of the airports and sit out there for two and a half hours waiting for a ride. That’s a bad experience, and that’s the kind of thing we want to avoid at all costs.”

St. Paul Downtown will be the closest airport — about a mile and a half — from the Excel Center where the RNC will take place. Schmidt says the airport will be the trump card to drawing corporate traffic away from MSP — a wild card is how temporary flight restrictions will impact the MAC system when President Bush arrives at the convention, which is expected but not scheduled. “That impacts how much traffic St. Paul Downtown can take, or if we’ll have to encourage them to use some of the other airports,” Schmidt says.

St. Paul Downtown caters to primarily corporate traffic, but has military operations in the form of the Minnesota Army Guard and two flight schools. Situated on the bank of the Mississippi River, the 550-acre airport has had three floods in the past 20 years. [See sidebar below.]

The airport leases out land, allowing tenants to build their own facilities. As a result, the airport doesn’t currently own any hangars.

“We’re limited as far as any additional building areas,” comments Greg Fries, airport manager for St. Paul Downtown. “We have nowhere else to build. This is the size we’re going to be. We have an industrial park on one side and the river on the other side. There is some [acreage] still available for corporate hangars and then we’re pretty much built out as far as corporate hangars go.”

The Anoka County Airport has benefitted from outside investment more than once. MAC’s Schmidt says airport improvement projects were on the books for years before Anoka County decided to take action.
“The county was a little bit frustrated because they saw this is an opportunity for us to help promote economic development in our area,” says Schmidt. “They finally said, enough of that, we’re going to spend some of our money to help with the improvements on the airport. The county actually sold bonds and paid for the runway extension and a new building area on the northwest corner. The instrument landing system was included.”

Schmidt says the county ended up spending $13 million on improvements, which included a 1,000-foot runway extension.

“In return, we leased them the northwest building area, which they paid for. And they then would be able to sublease that back to an entity and recover some of the money they had invested in the airport. It actually just sort of transferred the privilege of leasing it to the county because they had paid for all the preparation.”

Airport manager Joe Harris says the situation was unique within the MAC system.

“The MAC has never had that type of public partnership with any other county or municipality in which our airports actually sit, for them to actually invest in the airport because of the inherent value of it,” Harris says. “They see that it’s a true catalyst. There’s a lot of development in Anoka County and they see the airport as helping attract some of those people looking to maybe relocate to Minnesota or relocate from some other place in the Cities.”

With the improvements made to the 1,900-acre airport, what was left lacking was a fixed base operation that catered to corporate traffic. Then late last year, Connecticut-based Key Air entered into an agreement to build an FBO on the north side of the airport to fulfill that need.

Harris is optimistic about the development. “I think it will be a good complement to services to what’s being offered here with the services that they plan on providing,” he says.

The airport has two incumbent FBOs on the field. One, Crossroads Aviation, went into litigation with MAC for a dispute over the FBO’s footprint, which has since been resolved. The other, Cirrus Flight Operations, has been at the airport for several years.

Key Air is working quickly to get the FBO up and running in time to cater to Republican National Convention traffic. “I’ve been part of some building projects and processes before, but to see the level of subcontractors and contractors out here working to this extent, is really amazing,” Harris says.

He notes that the FBO is initially building a terminal hangar facility, with plans for expansion later.

Touring the airport, there is a definite sense of community, thanks in part to the variation in types of aviation based there. “You’ve got antique aircraft; you’ve got small aircraft; and then you’ve got it mixed in with the jets,” Harris says. “This airport isn’t one or another. It’s all of this, which is literally all of general aviation.”

The contract air traffic control tower also helps. All controllers working at Anoka are former employees of larger commercial airports.

“To me, the front door is them, providing that kind of service,” Harris says. “They’ll make small talk as guys who have been there and done it. I think it’s great to have. They themselves attract a lot of people into the airport just because of their friendliness.”

And while Anoka is adding FBOs, Flying Cloud Airport southwest of the Twin Cities already has plenty.

“It has six FBOs on the field right now,” Harris says. “Three of them really cater to the corporate users and they all have another little niche business in addition to providing fuel services out there. They all seem to make a go of it.”

The airport has a strong complement of corporate traffic, and may see an influx of RNC traffic by virtue of it being familiar. Eden Prairie, where Flying Cloud is located, “is where your CEOs and executives live,” Harris says. “And every time the Republicans come in to do a fundraiser or whatnot, it’s usually in one of these nearby suburbs. I think Flying Cloud, because of that, could see some traffic.”

“It’s where the money is.”

Next year, Harris says, Flying Cloud’s 3900-foot runway is scheduled to receive an extension to 5000 feet.

While the reliever airports are working on airport improvements, Minneapolis-St. Paul International is working on getting the right level of customer service ready for RNC travelers.

“We really want the airport to be at top shape,” says MSP director Steve Wareham. “We’re going to take a couple of extra steps with the RNC.”

To prepare, Wareham says, he met with John Duval, formerly of Massport, who’d been through the process when the Democratic National Convention came to Boston in 2004.

“He outlined what their strategy was; he sent me their after-the-fact action report, the money involved, the different investors. We thought they really did a lot of things really well,” Wareham says.
But the biggest takeaway, Wareham says, was the concept of using a non-partisan approach.

“We thought that was really smart,” Wareham says. “Any state’s got their political balance. If we do things that look like they’re done for Republicans, perhaps Democrats can point fingers and say, why not us?

“So a lot of the decorations you’re going to see in the terminal, a lot of the things that we’re doing are going to be kind of American-themed type things as well as welcome to the Twin Cities, because we really want the Twin Cities to work well for all the visitors.”

Wareham notes that the 15,000 members of the media expected to come to the convention also serve as a motivator. “Any hint of a story, you know, and they’re going to be all over it. So we’d like the only story at the Twin Cities to be how friendly everyone was and how well things worked.”

Also on hand will be about 250 volunteers made up of MAC staff and Twin Cities residents who will greet travelers as they land. With Northwest Airlines as the official carrier for the RNC, Wareham says, they will be able to figure out more readily which flights people are bringing in which passengers.

“We’re going to welcome folks; we’re going to, as much as we can, walk them down to baggage and tell them about the Twin Cities.

“I love it when people walk me somewhere and help me find what I’m looking for. So we thought that would be a great thing to do because a lot of folks perhaps coming to the convention aren’t real active travelers. Coming to a big airport like MSP could be maybe overwhelming.”

At baggage claim, volunteers from the Republican Host Committee will take over.

“So we’re going to try to provide some hands-on service to folks ... whether they’re media, delegates, people that want to visit the Twin Cities and go to the State Fair, whatever,” Wareham says.

For departures, Wareham says he’s planning on setting up tables to give out small gifts, an idea he saw at Dulles Airport after the American Association of Airport Executives convention last year.

“It was just great,” Wareham says. “Last thing I remember about Dulles was somebody talked to me; they were warm, friendly, they worked at the airport, they gave me a bottle of water, and I just thought it was a nice touch.”

Wareham says the plans aren’t much different from the normal culture of MSP.

“One of the interesting things I realized about our work culture here at MSP when I got here, was when any customer comes up to you, you stop what you’re doing no matter how important you think you are and you help that customer,” Wareham says. “Our CEO will be in the terminal talking to somebody and if somebody comes up to him because they see a badge and they ask him a question, he’s going to direct his attention to that customer. And we all do.”

In the meantime, TSA is planning on staffing up. Wareham says that he knows protesters will be in town as well, but says they aren’t likely to stick around the airport. Airport staff is also working on how to stage certain people, like mayors and governors, who travel with armed police officers.