If you’re traveling out of Duluth International Airport (DLH) on a commercial flight, you have three destination options for daily flights—the Twin Cities, Chicago and Detroit.
While that list of cities may appear short, Tom Werner, executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority, says, “You have connectivity to three great hubs out of your hometown airport.”
Duluth-area travelers gain access to the Delta Air Lines network through the Twin Cities and Detroit hubs, while passengers on regional United Express flights connect to the United Airlines network via Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
Northeast Minnesota residents who fly out of the Duluth airport are paying for convenience, because they have short drives back home when they travel. That’s in contrast to a wearying three-hour ride from the Twin Cities if Duluth-area residents choose to drive to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP).
In addition to saving travel time on the road, the Duluth airport offers travelers the ability to breeze through security—on average it takes seven minutes. “We try to remove as much of that kind of hassle as we can,” Werner adds.
Allegiant Air also serves Duluth, with twice-weekly flights to Las Vegas and seasonal flights to Orlando and Phoenix for people who want to escape a polar vortex.
For Northland travelers, the flight choices appear to be working. Last year was Duluth’s fourth-busiest year ever, with 313,839 passengers using the airport. In 2012, the airport had its second-busiest year, with 322,208 passengers traveling through DLH.
Passengers now are arriving and departing at the airport’s new $78 million terminal, which opened in January 2013. It’s an attractive space—comfortable, flooded with natural light, with plenty of wood to create a warm feeling. One of its newest amenities is the Arrowhead Tap, a small, cheerful restaurant whose beverage menu includes several local craft beers. Werner calls the new terminal “the front door to this region.”
That front door took some time to open. Plans for the new terminal began taking shape a decade ago. “The struggles that Duluth had post-9/11 to adjust to the new norm in security—that was not unique to Duluth,” Werner notes. To build the terminal, Duluth tapped state and federal aviation trust funds for the airport upgrade. Government shutdowns slowed the building process, but in 2012 the Airport Authority was finally able to add the finishing touches.
The new terminal replaced a facility that was built in the mid-1970s, when DLH was served by a single carrier—Northwest Airlines. United came to Duluth in 2007, providing direct flights to Chicago—and as more travelers used the airport, capacity became a problem. After 9/11, the airport installed two glass enclosures to provide a secure area for passengers once they got through the TSA screening process. If you needed to use the restroom or get a snack, you had to leave the security enclosures, then go through the entire TSA process to re-enter. “If you had a flight of 75 to 80 people, it was standing-room only,” Werner recalls.
The new terminal offers much better flow—passengers enter on the east side of the building and exit on the west. It also helps DLH compete with MSP. Certainly, MSP has far more direct-destination options, but Werner emphasizes the time savings of flying out of Duluth.
Becky Haase, stakeholder relations specialist at energy pipeline company Enbridge’s Twin Ports office, says that her office logged 5,500 flights last year. “Our employees travel to our different office locations throughout the U.S. and Canada,” she says. “Wherever our pipelines are located, we’re pretty much going there.” Travel has expanded as Enbridge has increased its system in the past couple of years.
“Flying out of Duluth is really convenient,” Haase adds. “It’s a 10- to 15-minute drive for those folks who live in Duluth. I’ve been one of those who’s been racing down the security section to catch my plane just as it’s starting to board, so you get pretty spoiled” by having a small airport with fast security access and easy accessibility. And driving down to MSP isn’t always an option, particularly in the winter.
Another Duluth-based company, women’s clothing retailer Maurices, had 1,500 travelers go through the Duluth airport in the past year, says Laura Sieger, Maurices’ director of communications and engagement. “It’s a great convenience for us,” she says. Maurices’ headquarters staff keeps tabs on more than 925 stores throughout North America. “We do have a lot of people from other parts of the country for some of our specialized positions coming in,” Sieger says. “It really offers a nice first impression of the city.”
She and her colleagues look forward to the new enclosed long-term parking ramp, which is opening this fall, just in time for the Northland winter. The new ramp not only keeps cars safe out of the elements, it also connects directly to the terminal, so travelers don’t have to brave the elements.
Werner says that the airport’s domestic mix of carriers is attractive to business and frequent leisure travelers, and provides a variety that is rare for a city the size of Duluth.
The Airport Authority would like to add a direct connection to Denver, which would open up the western United States. That might be a long wait. “The fleets of the regional carriers are somewhat constrained right now,” Werner says. “It’s very difficult to demonstrate the demand that will allow an air carrier to take new risks.”
Still, DLH is flourishing. In addition to its transportation role, it’s also the home base of a number of aviation businesses—notably, maintenance company AAR, small aircraft manufacturer Cirrus, and private aircraft service provider Monaco Air. It’s not a major center of air travel like MSP, of course. But it demonstrates that a smaller airport can be a big deal to the region it serves.
Gene Rebeck is TCB’s northern Minnesota correspondent.