Saturday, February 21, 2015

North Dakota: Airline boarding see continued increase

Since hustling through several years of exponential growth, North Dakota airports may get to take a breather.

The North Dakota Aeronautics Commission predicts airline boardings will continue to grow in 2015 but at a slightly less rapid pace than that of previous years.

In 2014, the state marked seven consecutive years of growth. That trend is continuing into 2015 so far, with 4 percent more boardings this January compared to the year before. Boarding numbers totaled 100,674 passengers compared to 96,803 passengers in January 2014.

That 4 percent is less than the 9 and 10 percent year-over-year growth rates experienced last year and several years prior, Kyle Wanner, director of the Aeronautics Commission, said.

“We know that with so many years of large growth, at some point, it needs to level off,” he said, and this could be that year.

There is still growth, and Wanner said there are no indications that a decline would take place – even with oil prices down in the western half of the state, where oil exploration drove a lot of travel.

“I’m sure there’s potentially a concern in those communities, but I think they all understand they were behind on infrastructure in the first place,” he said. “Even if there is a minor decline, we’re still catching up to where we need to be.”

“We forsee not as much growth as last year, sort of a leveling off,” said Anthony Dudas, the assistant manager at Williston’s Sloulin Field International Airport.

In fact, Delta and United are adding flights to Denver and Minneapolis in March, according to Dudas, adding that more seats typically leads to more traffic.

There has been no slowing of private aviation traffic. Wednesdays are still very busy days for company charters bringing in workers to Williston, Dudas said. Several scheduled charters are being moved back to Williston from Minot, and Williston is getting more use than some of the smaller, more outlying airports, he said.

Boardings at Williston's airport were up from 8,479 in January 2014 to 10,621 last month. At 2,142 more passengers, the airport had the largest year-over-year numeric growth of all of North Dakota's commercial airports. Bismarck had the second largest passenger growth, going from 19,445 in January 2014 to 21,239 passengers last month, a difference of 1,794 passengers year-over-year.

“We’ll continue to see the numbers, in my opinion, in western North Dakota,” Wanner said.

Wanner’s confidence comes from the increased number of flights, airlines and destination that weren’t there a year ago, such as flights from Williston to Houston that started in the fall.

Load factors are high across the state, too, according to Wanner, who said Fargo’s airport averages 86 percent load factor on its flights, which means the planes are full, he said.

“That’s incredible,” Wanner said, adding that an airline typically needs between 70 and 80 percent load factors to be profitable.

Wanner said some airport managers are encouraging airlines to increase their number of flights in an effort to attract more passengers by making it more convenient to fly.

“We’ll see what the year brings, but, so far, it’s looking good,” Wanner said.

In the meantime, airports need to continue to plan for the demand the state already has, according to Wanner, adding that, if oil prices do go back up, the infrastructure needs to be in place, he said.

The North Dakota State Aviation System Plan technical report, which is meant to provide guidance for infrastructure development, will be coming out in the summer. Preliminary results from a study outlining aviation’s economic impact in the state are also expected in the summer or fall. 

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