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DLH looks to reconnect with Arizona

Airline passengers arrive at the Duluth International Airport terminal for their flights in this file photo. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

Duluth International Airport has seen its share of takeoffs in recent years — from the surging aviation industry to the departure of Allegiant Air and nonstop service to Detroit.

Now it's time to focus on landings.

"Our No. 1 priority is finding a low-cost carrier to connect to the Phoenix/Mesa area," said Tom Werner, executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority.

That's not just to bring Minnesotans to the desert in the winter, but to entice Arizonans to escape the heat in the summer.

"Demand can be there year-round," Werner said. "When it's 120 (degrees) in Phoenix, many people would rather be kayaking in Lake Superior."

Allegiant dropped its seasonal service to Arizona in 2014, then dropped out of the Duluth market entirely in 2015. Taking the year-round approach to include a focus on inbound visitors should help land another low-cost carrier this time around, the reasoning goes. It wouldn't hurt the local tourism sector, either.

The effort hinges on a $500,000 federal grant the airport and Visit Duluth are applying for this spring. That Department of Transportation money could be awarded as soon as this summer, with a two-year advertising blitz to follow.

Last year, nine airports out of 33 eligible applicants split about $5.1 million of the Small Community Air Service Development Program money.

As for this year's funding, the Department of Transportation "is working under a financial continuing resolution and does not have any funding or timing information to share at this time," spokeswoman Caitlin Harvey wrote in an email.

Among the carriers being sought for the route are Frontier, Sun Country or even Allegiant again.

"We're looking for a growing market and real evidence of demand and interest," said Larry Chestler, Sun Country's executive vice president of business development. "People like Delta who are our primary competitors have fleets of 1,000-plus airlines, and we have 22. We're careful when it comes to experimentation and new things because we can't be very wrong."

But he said there is the chance the airline would take a chance on Duluth, should the stars align just so.

"We do believe that long-term there are opportunities in some of the key Minnesota cities outside the Twin Cities," Chestler said. "I'd say we'd be open to considering creative ideas."

Allegiant, which did not return a request for comment, originally dropped service to Phoenix due to insufficient demand. But the Duluth airport's executive director said industry and local trends have swung back in favor of another route connecting Minnesota and the Grand Canyon State.

"Airlines are in different stages of their growth; our challenge is positioning ourselves," Werner said.

While it's not known how many Northland snowbirds head southwest in the winter, Werner said more customers request direct flights to Arizona than any other destination.

That much is a given; the real challenge will be getting folks out of the desert and into the lakes in the summer.

"At the end of the day, it's about attracting families, millennials," he said. "There's a lot of prime opportunity to market Duluth."

Ground control

Passenger counts have been falling at DLH in recent years, but operating revenues are expected to tick up between 2016 and 2017, thanks to the airport's role as a landlord for a group of growing aviation businesses.

Anchored by Cirrus, Lake Superior College, Monaco Air, AAR Corp., the 148th Fighter Wing and many others, aeronautics is on the rise in Duluth.

Beyond the prime directive of attracting a low-cost carrier to connect to Arizona, the airport has a shovel-ready site on the airfield and plans to add more space to its inventory down the line.

"We certainly want to seize opportunities to grow the cluster," Duluth Airport Authority Executive Director Tom Werner said. There have been lookers for the ready-to-build site, but he said the airport "hasn't found the right fit yet" as it looks for firms that can complement the cluster.

Commercial flights will always be important for DLH — especially for the city's business community — though the airport itself needs to be run like a business, Werner said.

The airport authority is a city agency, but it is financially self-sufficient, paying all its operating costs through its own revenues. For capital projects, it benefits greatly from state and federal support — this year's budget includes $8.2 million in federal grants and more than $800,000 from the state.

The biggest capital project to come will be replacing the main runway, which will be done in parts to prevent disruption to air service and businesses as much as possible; an extension is being eyed for the shorter secondary runway as well.

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is the business reporter at the Duluth News Tribune.

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