Our view: At least consider Duluth when flyingThe executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority understands why travelers from the Duluth area drive to Minneapolis to catch a flight rather than starting their journey outside his office windows.
Tom Werner gets it. The executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority understands why travelers from the Duluth area drive to Minneapolis to catch a flight rather than starting their journey outside his office windows. Airfares often are cheaper in Minneapolis. There are a lot more flights to pick from there, especially direct flights. The planes there tend to be bigger and more comfortable. And the drive down Interstate 35 is fast, smooth and fairly free of congestion and other hassles.
The phenomenon is known as “market leakage,” and in the Duluth market, 58 percent of air travelers “leak” to Minneapolis and elsewhere rather than flying from Duluth International Airport. That’s according to the preliminary results of a study that was leaked itself in late March. The News Tribune published a story on April 1. The full analysis on ticket purchases made within 30 miles of Duluth is expected any day now.
“Leakage is not uncommon in spoke airports like Duluth, Brainerd, Hibbing and others. It is very common,” Werner said while showing Duluth International’s new $78 million terminal to members of the News Tribune editorial board. “I do recognize the need to at least talk about what the issues are and what the numbers mean and what we’re going to do about it. That’s what people want to know. We’ve got work to do.”
A leakage rate of nearly 60 percent screams for getting to work. So does this: The leakage rate just a few years ago — in 1999, the last time Duluth-area travel habits were analyzed — was a far more modest 34 percent.
But there’s good news in the trends, too. The airport posted one of its busiest years in 2012, with passenger number up 9 percent over 2011. That continued in the first quarter of this year, with 5 percent more passengers compared to the same three months of 2012.
Also, encouragingly, Werner has chosen to look at the leakage not as a problem but as an opportunity. Considering the many local passengers bypassing the Duluth airport, he said in reference to the 322,000 Duluth passengers in 2012, “We have the potential to double that.”
That starts with reversing, or at least curbing, leakage, a prospect not without its considerable challenges. Airlines don’t market Duluth like they do larger airports. They see Duluth and similar-sized markets as “at risk” — not at risk of closing; rather, they see themselves at risk of not making any money here. So they don’t invest any money, either. Exacerbating that is that Duluth International doesn’t get any tax subsidies, and its marketing budget from the Minnesota Department of Transportation is a paltry $100,000 a year. That may sound good to taxpayers, but it’s a rough reality for an airport competing with a not-too-far-away hub.
“In terms of just having a presence out there, that takes capital and time,” Werner said. “We’ll continue to market as best we can in this community.”
The Duluth airport has plans to step up its marketing in Chicago, too. Working with Visit Duluth, the airport is seeking a local match and a $700,000 federal grant to advertise Duluth as a destination to those in the Windy City.
“Chicago to me is just a first step. The timing is good. I think we can do some things there,” Werner said. “We continue to chip away.”
(Visit Duluth referred questions about the Chicago marketing effort to its president, Terry Mattson. However, he was out of town this week and didn’t return messages from the News Tribune Opinion page.)
A healthy airport is critical to the health of a community. It offers a first and lasting impression to visitors. And its vitality can go a long way toward promoting economic development. Travel options attract businesses, industries, jobs and families.
We can help, too. Rather than just assuming we’ll get a better deal by driving to Minneapolis to catch a flight, we can actually check the fares. Every time. And we can consider other costs related to flying out of Minneapolis, including gas, parking and hotel. It’s that old “use it or lose it” when it comes to our airport and the flight options we have.
“It’s about price points. It’s about convenience for people. That’s our challenge,” Werner said. “We’re doing what we can. We are the public’s watchdog when it comes to fares. And the airlines have been responsive over the years.”