St. Cloud airport expands during tough economic timesby Ambar Espinoza, Minnesota Public Radio
The St. Cloud Regional Airport just finished a nearly $5 million terminal expansion. Airport officials say St. Cloud can now fully serve as a reliever airport to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. But a challenging economic climate means it'll take some time before airline companies begin to take advantage of the expansion.
St. Cloud, Minn. — When the St. Cloud Regional Airport was built in 1995, it had two airline reservation counters. But after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began to occupy one of those counters. Airport director Bill Towle said, up until that point smaller airports weren't required to have security checks.
"When they took this away and turned it into a screening area, it took away common space so we were limited to just this little area here for a line to cue, for those who were waiting for the airplane," said Towle. "Now we're getting that back, so that's nice."
Talk of expanding the airport intensified after a 2003 study reviewed what are called "tier-two airports" that feed into MSP. The Federal Aviation Authority, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the St. Cloud Regional Airport and several other agencies and airports wanted to maximize resources at airports outside of the Twin Cities and help ease traffic congestion into the Metro area. Airports in Duluth, Rochester, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin are tier-two airports to MSP. Towle said the study added St. Cloud.
"Being defined as a tier two airport, in that study it also talked about St. Cloud becoming the reliever to the Twin Cities, or the likely reliever to the Twin Cities," said Towle. "Then, of course, becoming the second largest airport in the state of Minnesota, so [for example] on a much smaller scale, a Midway to an O'Hare, but obviously a much smaller scale than that."
Towle said the committee found the St. Cloud airport has the greatest potential as a tier-two airport. It's the closest airport to MSP, just 72 driving miles away, and it's located in one of the fastest growing corridors in the state. Yet because it's a relatively new and small airport, it needed to catch up to the larger tier-two airports. The airport's check-in area could only fit around 30 people. Now, the expansion includes a standardized security checkpoint area that can fit 200 people, along with office space for TSA.
Towle said he's trying to find another airline to fly out of St. Cloud. He tried Southwest Airlines, which just began flying into MSP, but Southwest won't fly into airports with fewer than eight flights a day. Towle is also hoping that a St. Cloud carrier would fly to places in addition to Minneapolis, such as Detroit, Chicago, or Las Vegas. For now, Towle said it'll be up to Delta Airlines, to stimulate more travel from St. Cloud by adding flight services.
Tammy Lee Stanoch, vice president of Corporate Affairs for Delta Air Lines, said adding to the current four flights a day into St. Cloud is not on the table right now, since air travel is down in St. Cloud and around the country.
"Load factors have been at fairly disappointing levels in St. Cloud," said Stanoch. "In fact, the average load factor for flights has been about 30 percent. So at this time, adding flights is probably not a likelihood, but we will continue to look at that market, and if demand warrants, we will certainly reconsider that."
Right now, more than 80 percent of the air passengers from the St. Cloud area drive to Minneapolis and fly out of MSP, according to Tom Moore, president of the St Cloud Area Economic Development Partnership. Moore said the airport needs to capture more of those travelers. Sun Country Airlines flies into the airport only once every three weeks. Moore said if Sun Country would come in more frequently, then that would boost the number of passengers in St. Cloud.
"We can increase that number and be able to begin to be on the radar for other airline companies that would be interested in expanding. Again, we have been trying to do this for the last four or five years," said Moore. And it couldn't be a worst time both from an economic standpoint and since Sept. 11, 2001 in terms of the airline industry numbers going down."
Moore and airport director Bill Towle are hopeful the St. Cloud airport will attract another airline to the area and offer more flight services as the economy and the airline industry improve over time.
To see a slideshow tour of the new terminal Click here.
- All Things Considered, 03/16/2009, 5:50 p.m.