Saturday, May 01, 2021

Reliever airports buck trend in COVID-19 impacted 2020

The six general aviation airports operated by the Metropolitan Airports Commission, including the Lake Elmo Airport, collectively grew operations in 2020 by 2% to total 326,044, or 6,381 more takeoffs and landings than in 2019.

The general aviation airports are often referred to as reliever airports because they relieve congestion that would otherwise occur at the MAC’s major airport, Minneapolis-St. Paul International.

The increase bucks the trend of U.S. commercial airports, which suffered steep declines in activity last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. MSP reported a 40% decline in operations and a 62% decline in passengers in 2020.

Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie and Airlake Airport in Lakeville drove the operations increase in the MAC reliever airport system. Operations at Flying Cloud were up 19%, nearly 20,000 operations, over 2019. Airlake activity increased by 5% over 2019, with nearly 1,500 additional operations in 2020.

“While the pandemic forced steep declines in corporate travel and business jet activity, it appeared to open up opportunities for more flight training activities and leisure flying in general,” said Joe Harris, director of reliever airports for the MAC. “People had more time to fly. And for many, it was a great way to get outdoors and see the sights from a safe social distance.”

In addition to additional flight activity, Lakeville Community Development Director Dave Olson said during a Feb. 1 City Council meeting that of the 21 hangars recently constructed at Airlake, 12 of them are occupied.

The hangars were added after the city of Lakeville annexed the land from Eureka Township in order to provide sewer and water service to that portion of the airport. A second hangar expansion project is expected to be completed in 2024.

The completion of Airlake’s runway extension project was pushed off from 2022 to 2023, according to Olson, citing issues created by the flight and revenue declines MAC experienced at MSP.

Flying Cloud set some new daily operations records in 2020. On May 12, it was the 13th busiest airport in the country (commercial or general aviation), and on June 19, it marked its eighth busiest day of the past decade with more than 750 flights.

One of the catalysts for the increase in operations at Flying Cloud was the temporary closure of many universities. Students enrolled in aviation programs around the United States returned home to the Twin Cities to continue their instruction at one of the many flight schools located at the MAC’s system of reliever airports.

St. Paul Downtown Airport, which serves more corporate flying activity, recording a 26 percent decrease in operations. St. Paul operations were also limited by reduced air traffic tower hours, also due to the pandemic.

The MAC’s three remaining reliever airports – Lake Elmo, Anoka County-Blaine, and Crystal – each saw a less than 5% decrease in operations.

“As the last year demonstrated, there’s a strong demand across our general aviation system. That’s why it’s so important we continue to invest in infrastructure to make the airports as safe and efficient as possible,” said Brian Ryks, CEO of the MAC. “We completed a major runway extension and airfield reconfiguration project at Crystal in 2020, and this year we’ll complete a major phase in a $5 million airfield project at Lake Elmo to extend the runway and a parallel taxiway that will incorporate the latest safety measures to support activities there.”

The Lake Elmo project is less than half of the $11.5 million the MAC has budgeted for capital improvements at its general aviation airports in 2021. Aviation demand is also spurring private investment, with more than a dozen hangars completed or under construction in the last year.

The MAC’s reliever airport system generates an estimated $756 million a year for the area economy and supports more than 3,600 jobs.

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