More changes may be in Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport's future
Replacing the general aviation building at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport is one of the changes being considered for the future.
Jeff Wig, airport manager, gave an update on airport operations to Crow Wing County commissioners. The airport is jointly owned by the county and the city of Brainerd.
Wig said for visitors to the area on private airplanes and company planes, the general aviation building is the first impression. While they’ve done preliminary schematic design work and are in talks with Airmotive Enterprises, the airport’s fixed-base operator, Wig said plans are deferred at least a year. The airport may either need to remodel and add-on or construct a new facility.
Airmotive may be interested in constructing a separate building, while the airport would want a building for the Wings Cafe and to provide a 24-hour briefing area for pilots. At this point, there are too many unknowns to provide a cost estimate, Wig said.
He credited a partnership with Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp., the Brainerd Lakes Chamber, the county, along with the cities of Brainerd and Baxter in the efforts to extend sewer and water to the airport. The latest cost estimate was $7.1 million.
Commissioner Paul Koering asked why the airport couldn’t manage by drilling 12-inch irrigation wells, which would cost a lot less.
Wig said the wells could solve short-term needs but would come with costs for the well, tanks, pumps and significant maintenance. In addition, Wig said the airport’s septic system was on borrowed time. But, he said, one of the biggest advantages comes greater ability to foster economic development at the air field with municipal services.
Koering said that development isn’t a sure thing, but the cost represented a tremendous amount of money. As of Tuesday, Wig said the governor still had to sign the bill and then a lot will need to be done locally. Once the state government signs off on extending the local option sales tax, it goes before voters in the Nov. 4 general election.
In other updates, Wig reported a new high-speed snowplow was purchased to work the runway and in 2015 plans are to get a new snowblower that works three times faster while keeping the older snowblower as a backup. Snowbanks, which an airplane wing can clip, pose a safety issue.
On Jan. 9, 1983, a passenger was fatally injured and another seriously injured when a propeller on a Republic Airlines flight struck a snowbank, separated and entered the cabin.
In recent months, Wig said there has been more interest in hangar leases than was the case for a number of years. Between 2012 and 2013, fuel sales increased from 15 to 20 percent. And the number of people boarding planes in Brainerd was up 10 percent on a six-month view ending in April. But Wig said the increase comes after a low period as the airport was transitioning between carriers.
Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom, who serves on the airport commission, said there were a number of canceled flights and difficulties before services improved with SkyWest Airlines.
Wig said the region could not have been more lucky than to have SkyWest, which is a solid airline and consistently profitable.
Wig said with the recent foggy morning, SkyWest kept an airplane in International Falls until the fog lifted in Brainerd so the flight could pick up passengers here. Wig said when that happens the airline works with passengers to find later connections if a flight is missed.
Commissioner Paul Thiede said he hesitated to bring the matter up in a public session, but his experience was a flight he was taking from Brainerd was canceled 10 minutes before he was to board and when it was barely snowing. Thiede said he couldn’t get a boarding pass at the Brainerd airport. After driving to the Twin Cities, Thiede said he had to go to the Delta desk to get a boarding pass and then the airline let the plane go 30 seconds before he arrived at the gate.
Nystrom pointed to surveys that are getting positive feedback and more business customers are returning to fly out of the airport here.
Thiede said he was just telling them the system wasn’t perfect and he’d be very skeptical before he booked another winter flight out of Brainerd. Administrator Tim Houle noted the free parking, short time through security and easy walk to connecting flights as all positives to flying out of the Brainerd regional airport.
“I’m not throwing cold water on the cheerleaders,” Thiede said.
After the session with commissioners, Wig researched the cancelation issue.
“I know that good on-time statistics are not much of a comfort if you are that unlucky person whose flight was canceled, but I’m pretty proud of our staff and the record we have had in Brainerd over the last year,” Wig stated.
Three flights were canceled in April from the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport because of winter weather here or in the Twin Cities.
In April, Wig reported 84 percent of Delta flights departed on-time. In a normal month, he said the percentage is often 90 percent or higher.
In April, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport was at 65 percent for on-time flights and Chicago O’Hare was at 53 percent.
“We did have more cancelations in the past when our flights were operated by different airline,” Wig said. “But since SkyWest started running our Delta flights in 2013 we’ve seen a big change with only three total flights canceled out of 460 in the entire six months before Dec. 1. Given the storms and fog that can hamper flight operations even in the summer this is pretty remarkable.”
As for the boarding pass issue, Wig said there is a limitation with the Delta reservation computer system that prevents one airport from printing boarding passes for a flight originating from another airport.
Wig said this won’t help in every instance, but he encourages passengers to print their boarding passes at home before going to the airport as a time saver.
Gary Scheeler, Brainerd city council member and airport commission member, said Wednesday Thiede should have addressed his concerns to the airport commission rather than at a county board session.
“It’s just not right to run down our airport,” Scheeler said. “I’m proud of what we have going on out there.”
Wig said the bottom line is there can be a flight cancelation anywhere because of weather. Scheeler said an example of how well things work at the airport came earlier this month. A flight destined for St. Cloud was forced to divert to its alternate airport, which is Brainerd, after lightning strikes caused power outages there.
News of the diversion didn’t arrive in Brainerd until after the airport closed for the night but three staff, Wig, Airmotive’s Mike Peterson and Delta’s Brainerd manager Karen Skarolid, came back to assist. The plane was refueled and flew back to Chicago.
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen asked about costs to fly out of Brainerd. Wig said they do price comparisons for 25 destinations. For spring break, flying out of Brainerd was about $140 more roundtrip but during the late fall and early winter flying out of Brainerd added $65.