Duluth airport drops a notch
Rochester has nipped Duluth for bragging rights as Minnesota's second-busiest airport. In 2006, Duluth International Airport's traffic slid 5.5 percent to about 289,000 passengers. Meanwhile, Rochester International's passenger count rose 6.1 per...
Rochester has nipped Duluth for bragging rights as Minnesota's second-busiest airport.
In 2006, Duluth International Airport's traffic slid 5.5 percent to about 289,000 passengers. Meanwhile, Rochester International's passenger count rose 6.1 percent to about 297,000 travelers.
Duluth first nudged Rochester out of its No. 2 perch in 2002 and has clung to the ranking three of the past five years.
Brian Ryks, director of the Duluth Airport Authority, said he believes the most significant factor in the recent slip was Northwest Airlines' decision in November 2005 to reduce its number of daily flights between Duluth and Detroit from two to one.
"The second flight was much better positioned to make international connections through Detroit than the early morning flight we kept," Ryks explained.
Had Duluth been able to retain the Detroit flight, Ryks contends the airport probably would have been able to retain the No. 2 position.
Duluth's plight is not unique.
Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, said several airports dominated by Northwest -- including Detroit and Memphis -- had the same story in 2006. As the bankrupt airline worked to navigate its way through a Chapter 11 reorganization, it scaled back service.
At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, overall aircraft operations dropped 10.6 percent in 2006, and passenger traffic declined 5.2 percent from 2005 levels.
In other words, while the airport may be handling fewer flights, planes are fuller.
Roughly 35.6 million passengers used Minneapolis-St. Paul International in 2006, according to unaudited figures Hogan provided Monday.
While many airports were watching commercial air service shrink, Rochester saw modest growth. Airport Manager Steven Leqve said American Eagle added a flight between Rochester and Chicago's O'Hare International in 2006, bringing its daily schedule to seven flights. Meanwhile, Northwest continued to serve Rochester with eight daily flights, including one to Detroit.
Ryks said competition can help keep airports healthy.
In 2006, Northwest's only competition in Duluth came from Allegiant Air, which carried 23,450 passengers after launching twice-a-week service between Duluth and Las Vegas in January 2006.
"We've been pretty satisfied with the results of our first year in Duluth," said Allegiant spokeswoman Tryri Squyres. She said bookings were predictably a bit soft during the summer but have firmed up with the change of seasons.
Allegiant has no immediate plans to expand service by offering flights from Duluth to Orlando -- its other main market -- but Squyres said the airline continues to evaluate Duluth with an eye to the future.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for Duluth International is Midwest Airlines' plan to launch service between Duluth and its home base in Milwaukee on March 4. Initially, the airline plans to offer two daily flights on weekdays and three over the weekend. If the airline is well-received in Duluth, Ryks said Midwest has indicated it may consider adding a third daily flight in July.
"I see this as an excellent opportunity to stimulate additional travel out of Duluth," he said. "And I would hope that our leakage of business to Minneapolis will be reduced as our fares become more competitive."
Ryks said he expects Duluth International's passenger count will grow in 2007 with Midwest Airlines in the mix.
Leqve, too, is bullish about the coming year.
"There seems to be tremendous community support for our airport, and this area continues to grow at a decent rate," he said.
Does being No. 3 vs. No. 2 in the state really matter to Ryks?
"Absolutely," he said.
Game on, Rochester.
PETER PASSI covers business and development. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5526 or by e-mail at email@example.com .