After another record year, airport honing strategy

Jan. 18, 2018

By almost any measure, the Sioux Falls Regional Airport had another banner year.

More than 1 million passengers flew into or out of the airport last year. That’s a 6 percent increase, resulting in a seventh consecutive record year.

Repeating that feat, though, is far from a given.

“Eight years in a row of record passengers might be difficult, but we’ll see,” executive director Dan Letellier said. “We had a great 2017.”

Freight transported in and out of the airport also was up 16 percent, “which is usually a pretty good indicator not only of the local economy but the national economy,” he continued, and mail – primarily through FedEx – totaled more than 29,000 tons, up 28 percent.

The industry, though, doesn’t make that kind of growth easy to achieve.

A pervasive pilot shortage often means that for carriers to add flights in one market, they have to remove them from somewhere else, Letellier said. It’s also prompted legacy airlines, including Delta and United, to run fewer flights per day from Sioux Falls.

In 2017, passenger traffic got a boost from a “fare war” that broke out during the summer as both Allegiant and Frontier offered service to Las Vegas.

Overall flight segments and seats for the first five months of 2018 are “very close if not a little lower than last year,” Letellier said. “That doesn’t mean we’ll have fewer passengers, but certainly it’s doubtful to see much of an increase in passenger traffic for the first half of 2018.”

Frontier is expected to communicate plans for summer flights soon, he said.

“They take a break for three months and come back in mid-April with flights to Denver, but the extra service they had last year started in June, so I would expect if they will do additional flying similar to last year that will come out pretty soon.”

The airport, though, has adjusted its strategy for recruiting additional air service.

“We’ve really focused more on making visits to each airline’s headquarters, where you get to talk to more schedule planners and have more time,” Letellier said.

Here’s how those conversations have been going:

Delta Air Lines

“We went to Delta a few months ago in Atlanta really pushing new service either to Salt Lake City or Seattle, and they were very receptive, more so than we expected on service to Seattle,” Letellier said.

The airport has a grant that could help with startup costs, he said. While 2018 was fairly booked, “2019 was certainly open to possibility” although the pilot shortage could come into play.

United Airlines

“We went to Chicago and talked to United, and there was some interest in possibly a new route to Houston, maybe to Washington, D.C., where they have a hub, and even Newark, N.J., but it all comes back to even if it makes sense and passenger traffic supports it, they could have to rob someone else’s plane and crew to do it,” Letellier said.

American Airlines

There was interest in Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, N.C., where the carrier has hubs, Letellier said.

Frontier Airlines

The airline flew to Las Vegas last summer, but Florida could be a fit, Letellier said. “I think with families going to Florida that time of year it could go well, so I’m hopeful they’ll consider.”

Allegiant Air

The airline is expanding beyond the smaller markets where it typically has provided service, “so I don’t expect a lot,” Letellier said. “We’ve talked about one or two cities in Florida and possibly the San Francisco area, but as they are looking at new routes and cities, we’re just hoping to maintain the frequency we have.”

New projects

It will be another year of construction at the airport, too.

The next phase of a runway reconstruction will close one runway from April through October. Because instrument approach equipment is on the runways, it can impact arrivals and departures in heavy storms and fog.

“We did it last year from April through early September, and we did really well until the last couple days, and then there were some foggy mornings that had a bit of an impact,” Letellier said.

A project to expand baggage claim will be done in phases over the next year, adding capacity for travelers and their luggage.

Rendering by TSP Inc. / Miller Dunwiddie

“We’ll completely revamp the baggage claim area with large, sloped carousels and probably quadruple the capacity of what we have now and double the square footage of the area.”

The economy parking area, which is often full in February and March, will be expanded in April. It also will serve as a spot for displaced vehicles if a new parking garage is built in a few years.

“I think we’ve come a long way in becoming comparable to what’s available in Minneapolis and Omaha,” Letellier added.

While fares still are slightly higher in Sioux Falls – especially around the holidays when airlines send their larger plans to larger markets – “now the bigger planes are coming back, so the airfares will be more in line. We’re very excited people value flying out of here.”

After another record year, airport honing strategy

More than 1 million passengers flew into or out of the airport last year. It’s a 6 percent increase, resulting in a seventh consecutive record year.

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