For Andy Larson, the Brainerd Lakes area is the gateway to the world.
Larson co-owns a firm called the Retirement Learning Center. He and his business partner, who’s based in New York City, travel across the country, speaking to and consulting with investment advisors and companies on pension plans and their underlying investments. Larson himself is on the road (up in the air) 40 weeks of the year.
But Larson has no desire to live anywhere but where he’s lived most of his life. And he has no need to move. He can leave his house in the Brainerd Lakes area at 7 a.m., check in at Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, zip through the TSA gauntlet, and land at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) around 8. “A lot of my pals in the Twin Cities have a longer [car] commute than that,” he notes.
In addition to running his business, Larson also is head of the Brainerd Lakes Airport Authority. In that role, he’s helped oversee the airfield’s recent improvements and expansion. It’s an upgrade that is being reflected at other small airports in northern Minnesota, which are using their connections to MSP and the global connectivity it offers to remain viable transportation operations.
The Brainerd Lakes and Range Regional airports (the latter was called Chisholm-Hibbing until 2010) both have scheduled Delta Air Lines flights to the Twin Cities—and Sun Country offers jaunts to the Riverside Resort Hotel and Casino in Laughlin, Nevada. They’ve renovated and expanded their facilities in the past few years, partly to meet federal security regulations post-9/11. But the updates also are making it easier for a steady number of passengers to travel.
Brainerd Lakes, for instance, has remodeled and expanded its terminal, adding a jet bridge connecting the building to planes. These upgrades were planned before the recession, when passenger counts were climbing. While passenger numbers dipped during the slow years, airport manager Jeff Wig expects enplanements to be up 9 to 10 percent in 2014 over last year.
In addition, 13 businesses and other organizations (including medical services) have some type of base at Brainerd Lakes. These entities employ 74, up from 69 a year ago. “Quite a few are high-paying positions,” Wig notes, including pilots, flight nurses, paramedics, mechanics and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources staff.
At Range Regional, businesses also have been boosting airport usage. Shaun Germolus, executive director of the Chisholm-Hibbing Airport Authority, notes that Chisholm is home to a major Delta reservations center that employs more than 400. That center is undergoing a $6 million renovation project, which could add about 100 jobs a year from now. “[Businesspeople] use our airport pretty frequently,” Germolus says. “They travel to the Twin Cities and then on to Atlanta. Our medical facilities, our hospitals, utilize the flights quite a bit as well.” So do the region’s mining companies, and the businesses that supply equipment and services to them.
Businesses aren’t the only fliers, of course. “This is the only form of public transportation that provides access to and from the Iron Range region,” Germolus says. “We don’t have bus service [going outside the region] anymore. There’s no passenger rail. I think that contributes to a lot of it as well, especially with the long driving times and the price of gas and our weather conditions. People are finding it very convenient to hop on the airplane here locally and fly into the Twin Cities. It’s about a 40-minute flight. From there, they can go anywhere in the world.”
In mid-September, Range Regional announced that it would begin construction this fall on a new $10 million terminal, which is expected to be completed by late 2015.
Another northern Minnesota commercial airport, Thief River Falls Regional, had 12 flights a week to MSP via Great Lakes Airlines. In February, Great Lakes suspended flights from Thief River to MSP, citing a pilot shortage. But in September, airport manager Joe Hedrick announced that Great Lakes would start serving Thief River Falls again in October. The carrier plans on operating 14 round trips a week to MSP in nine-seat aircraft.
Even during the lull in passenger flights, Hedrick’s facility was busy as a freight center. FedEx, DHL and UPS all fly out of the airport, primarily to serve global electronic-components distributor Digi-Key, which has its headquarters in Thief River Falls.
“The entire northwestern Minnesota region benefits from having the draw that Digi-Key brings to the community,” Hedrick says. “It means that other people that are requesting overnight packages can get them here—not just Digi-Key.”
Many small airports have struggled to maintain passenger service. Joe Brancatelli, editor of Joesentme.com, a website for business travelers, observes that airlines have been reducing their service to small regional airports. Airlines, he says, “have admitted the obvious—that [smaller aircraft] are not cost-effective, and that the best way to make money in the airline business is to fly more people on the same aircraft, not fewer. So they’re retiring more and more small jets.” Because small airplanes tend to serve small airports, service to those airports has been shrinking.
In recent years, the airports in Brainerd Lakes and Thief River Falls have experienced passenger declines. Meanwhile, airplane sizes and the number of flights have changed. Ten years ago, Brainerd Lakes had as many as seven outbound flights a day, but with small planes. Now, it has two outbound flights per day, with larger, 50-passenger jets.
However, at Range Regional, Delta has shifted from 14 flights a week with 30-seat planes to 12 flights with 50-seat jets. Range Regional, Brainerd Lakes and Thief River have benefited from the federal Essential Air Service (EAS) program, which subsidizes carriers serving those airports. At Range Regional, SkyWest, serving as a Delta Connection carrier, receives an annual subsidy of $2.5 million. EAS funds also helped Thief River regain scheduled passenger service.
At Brainerd Lakes, Larson says his airport has become an economic selling point for the region, helping to demonstrate the “kinds of opportunities and advantages of locating individuals and whole businesses in the Brainerd Lakes area.”
There’s also a personal dimension, of course. Brainerd Lakes Regional, Larson notes, “allows me the wonderful experience of life on the lakes and access to the rest of the world.”
Airports in Brainerd, Hibbing and Thief River Falls have scheduled passenger flights, which are subsidized with federal funds. Passenger numbers have dropped in recent years in Brainerd and Thief River Falls. But passenger traffic has grown at the Range Regional Airport as Delta Air Lines increased seats on the market.
Gene Rebeck is TCB’s northern Minnesota correspondent.