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DEVILS LAKE -- After dropping an unreliable airline and switching to an air service with direct flights to Denver, Devils Lake Regional Airport is on track to have its biggest year for boardings.
For the last five months, the airport has outpaced itself in boardings. As of the end of April, Devils Lake had boarded 1,965 passengers, a 55 percent increase from last year at that time.
The May count isn't official yet, but it should come in around 500, airport manager John Nord said.
"Right now we are ahead of schedule," he said. "The month of May, while we don't have all of the final numbers in, it will be a record month for May."
The boardings are a stark comparison to its 2012 and 2013 numbers when the airport had a contract with Great Lakes Airlines, which suspended its contract in early 2014. The airport boarded a total of 2,998 passengers in 2012, dropping off from the nearly 5,500 passengers that used the airport in 2011 before Great Lakes replaced Delta Airlines and Airlines. Great Lakes boarded even fewer passengers--2,667--in 2013.
SkyWest Airlines, which has direct flights to Denver, beat out Great Lakes for an Essential Air Service bid at Devils Lake, but it couldn't take over air service until June 2014, leaving the airport without service from February to May after Great Lakes left the airport, Nord said.
But even without those months, the airport saw a jump in boardings. Devils Lake served 2,889 passengers in 2014. Last year, that number almost doubled to 5,104 passengers.
Devils Lake is kicking a trend plaguing other airports in the state: a dramatic drop in boardings. Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport, which saw its boardings triple by the end of April 2014 compared to the previous year, lost 69 percent of its April passengers compared to the April 2015 count, the largest dip among airports in North Dakota.
The decrease is likely due to an oil slowdown amid low oil prices. At the heart of an oil boom, which boosted air traffic to the point of airports adding flights and planning for expansions, Sloulin Field International Airport in Williston boarded 10,150 passengers in April 2015, a record for that month.
But that airport also took a hit to its count, shedding almost half of its April boardings passengers in one year.
Even airports in eastern North Dakota haven't been immune to decreasing passenger numbers. Hector International Airport in Fargo boarded 133,807 passengers this year as of April, a decrease by more than 11 percent of its boardings by the end of April 2015. Grand Forks International Airport, with 48,136 boardings, lost about 3,000 passengers, or about 6 percent, in the same timeframe.
As of April, North Dakota airports have boarded 57,095 fewer passengers than last year at that time, a 14 percent decrease.
The passenger numbers for North Dakota airports may have dropped dramatically, but they are still above pre-oil boom counts, said Kyle Wanner, director of the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission.
"Each community has it's own set of challenges," he said, adding farm commodities and a low Canadian dollar is also impacting travel to North Dakota. "Today, they may have less passengers than their peak years in '14 and '13, but historically, they have incredible air service still. You kind of have to put it into perspective."
It's hard to tell if airports are losing passengers to surrounding cities, Wanner said. Some markets leak customers to others, but it's a two-way street--Grand Forks customers may drive to Devils Lake and vice versa. Customers are free to choose which airport they feel has the best deal.
"We're still very healthy as far as our passenger numbers go," he added.
Like Devils Lake, Jamestown Regional Airport has seen large increases, which Nord also attributed to SkyWest taking over for Great Lakes' Jamestown EAS contract. That airport, which flew only 2,672 passengers in 2013 when Great Lakes was its primary air service, has surpassed that yearly total in March. So far this year, the airport has boarded 3,378 passengers, up 39 percent from 2015 year-to-date numbers in April.
"Our boardings aren't based on the oil boom," Nord said. "Our boardings are based on the normal folks that finding us and realizing there is value in flying out of the Devils Lake area."
He also said free parking does attract customers, especially when most airports in the state charge for parking.
"That's a big deal for people," he said, adding many passengers are surprised when he tells them there is no charge for parking. "There isn't much left in life that is free."
The Devils Lake passenger market has increased quite a bit over the past several years, Nord said. SkyWest signed a two-year contract that will begin in July. The contract also adds another flight to the airports already 11 roundtrips.
The jump in numbers also prompted the airport to install a fueling tank for SkyWest so it can handle heavier loads, Nord said. Instead of filling up in Jamestown, SkyWest will be able to fuel in Devils Lake sometime in June.
"We're a small airport and people are still finding out about us," he said. "Once they start coming here ... I see a lot repeat passengers coming here."
Original article can be found here: http://www.thedickinsonpress.com