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Outgoing director Ryks reflects on Duluth airport's growth, and its future

Before he stepped down as executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority on Friday, Brian Ryks talked about gains made and where Duluth air service should go from here.

Brian Ryks
Brian Ryks, whose last day as executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority was Friday, stands in what will be the check-in lobby and ticketing area of the new terminal under construction at the Duluth International Airport. The ceiling rises to nearly 40 feet with part of the second floor overlooking the lobby at the far end. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Before he stepped down as executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority on Friday, Brian Ryks talked about gains made and where Duluth air service should go from here.

Without hesitation, he listed the additional service Duluth should try to get:

  • Nonstop flights to Denver, United Airlines' second biggest hub, which includes connections for international travel.
  • Allegiant Air direct service to two more leisure destinations -- Punta Gorda, Fla., which is north of Fort Myers, and to Cancun, Mexico, after the niche airlines begins international travel in 2013 or 2014.
  • Increase the number of United's daily flights to Chicago from three to four or five. "Those are great opportunities for us," said Ryks, who moves on to lead the larger Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Mich., on July 9.

    Getting that additional service would be no easy task, but it could happen.

    Getting airlines to add service takes a lot of lobbying and convincing. But Duluth's current air service is successful. And with new terminals -- like Duluth's under construction -- airport use typically increases 10 to 15 percent, adding to the city's appeal, Ryks said, quoting industry sources.

    And Duluth may be on a roll.

    During Ryks' 10 years at the helm of the Duluth International Airport, air service has dramatically expanded. It has grown from one airline, Northwest, to three: Delta (formerly Northwest), United and Allegiant. It has gone from the lone destination of Minneapolis to six: Minneapolis, Detroit, Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando and Phoenix.

    Within weeks of Ryks starting the job in 2002, he learned American Eagle was pulling its lone Duluth-Chicago service because of low revenues.

    "It was a tough way to start, but it certainly set the stage for making air service retention and development the priority," he said.

    Air service development, however, is a big challenge in a market this size, he said.

    "Northwest wanted to defend its territory here," Ryks said of the airlines serving Duluth that was acquired by Delta Air Lines in 2008. "It's a fierce competitor that wanted the market all to itself."

    The expansion of air service -- flight-by-flight -- took years of work, establishing relationships with air carriers.

    "You have to demonstrate there's a market," Ryks said. "There are trips to present the market to them and convince them it's a good market to come into."

    Then there was convincing business and the public to fly from Duluth instead of driving to Minneapolis to catch flights. It all took a team of partners, including Area Partnership for Economic Expansion and local chambers of commerce, he said.

    It has paid off, with more options for travelers and more competitive fares.

    During Ryks' 10 years in Duluth, more than $100 million in improvements have been made at the airport, including a new fire station serving the airport and Air National Guard, runway reconstruction and upgrades and new apron areas. Monaco Air became the airport's new service provider, which observers say was a big improvement.

    But Ryks's legacy in Duluth will likely be the new $77.5 million airport terminal nearing completion that many say wouldn't have happened without his tireless efforts.

    Those efforts included lobbying for state bonding money, working with former Rep. Jim Oberstar and others to get federal grants and other funding, numerous presentations to officials, business and community groups to convince them a new terminal was needed to meet post-9/11 safety and security requirements.

    "It was because of his leadership and management that we chose to embark on that huge project with the new terminal," said John Eagleton, president of the Duluth Airport Authority.

    John Hippchen of Reynolds Smith and Hills, the project's architect of record, said Brain was the key.

    "Brian's leadership is what was needed to make this project a success," he said. He pulled it off by numerous trips to the FAA and state, lobbying for state bonding and federal funding to make sure we got the financials worked out. He really, really spent a lot of time in St. Paul, lobbying for state bonding money, and with the FAA in Washington and its Minneapolis district office to get the funding commitments. The community owes a lot to Brian for the success of this process. I'm sad to see him go."

    Ryks deflected the praise.

    "That's nice to hear but really it's a group effort," he said. "A lot of people were involved. I'm just the front guy. But it's been a passion. You have to have a passion for what you're doing."

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