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Fargo Hector International Airport sees growth, strives for more

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Fargo Hector International Airport sees growth, strives for more
Perham Minnesota 222 2nd Avenue SE 56573

FARGO -- Fargo's Hector International Airport is flying higher than ever.

Boardings and the number of flights have risen sharply in the past decade, and increased competition among carriers has pushed down fares to some cities.

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But area business leaders say the airport - on track for its second straight year of record boardings - must reach even greater heights if the Fargo-Moorhead area is to continue growing.

"This is the single most important issue affecting the economic future of our community," said Brian Walters, president of the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp.

"We've made considerable progress, but there's still work to do," he said.

Without more air service, particularly to major hubs, the metropolitan area will struggle to attract new businesses in high-paying, fast-growing fields such as biotechnology, he said.

Some existing metro businesses won't be able to grow unless more Hector service is added, he said.

The big prize is direct access to more hubs that offer more connections to the East Coast and abroad.

"We need more connections east," said Kathi Schwan, who leads the Fargo office of Navteq.

Her company, which produces digital maps, has 192 offices in 43 countries.

More connections in major hubs, such as the Atlanta airport, would cut travel time for Navteq employees traveling to or from Fargo, she said.

The development corporation identified expanded air service as a priority about six years ago, Walters said.

He's met repeatedly with officials of multiple airlines to make the case for more Fargo service.

The push has included financial aid to airlines launching Hector service.

Earlier this fall, American Eagle Airlines, the regional affiliate of American Airlines, announced it will begin service in April between Hector and Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

The development corporation will reimburse American up to $134,000 for start-up fees and expenses at Hector, Walters said.

That's much less than some communities offer to attract air service, he said.

More Minnesotans

Businesses and individuals in western Minnesota increasingly make use of Hector rather than driving to Minneapolis and using the airport there, said Nancy Straw, president of the Fergus Falls-based West Central Initiative.

Her organization seeks to improve Minnesota's economy by supporting families and businesses.

"It's wonderful to be able to use an airport that's as convenient and efficient as Hector," said Straw, who flies out of Hector herself.

Employees of Douglas Machine in Alexandria, Minn., sometimes use Hector instead Minneapolis, said Rick Paulsen, company president.

"We'd like to use it more often" and would do so if Hector had more and lower-priced flights, he said.

Douglas Machine, which makes packaging products, would like more flights to the Midwest and southeastern United States, where food and beverage manufacturing customers are located, Paulsen said.

Flying out of Minneapolis generally costs less than comparable flights at Hector, according to development corporation figures.

This fall, the average low fare for a round-trip flight (21-day advance with Saturday night stay) between Fargo and 20 selected cities was $328.

That number - and all other fare prices mentioned in this article - don't include taxes.

For the comparable flights between Minneapolis and 20 selected cities, the average low fare was $257, or $71 less than the average low fare at Hector.

But the difference in the average Hector and Minneapolis fare prices has shrunk in recent years, according to the development corporation numbers.

That's encouraging more folks in northwestern Minnesota to use Hector, especially if they live much closer to Fargo than the Twin Cities, said Shawn Dobberstein, executive director of Hector.

Remember, average fare prices are just that - an average. Sometimes a Fargo flight is less expensive than a comparable one in Minneapolis, he said.

Even if the flight at Hector costs more, it might be a better deal if gas costs, parking fees and convenience are factored in, he said.

Microsoft connection

Microsoft is working on its own to establish regular flights between its Fargo campus and Seattle, said Don Morton, Microsoft's Fargo site leader.

The company's headquarters is in Redmond, Wash. Non-stop air service between Fargo and Seattle would cut Fargo/Redmond commute times by 75 percent, he said.

Before the recession hit, Microsoft was close to an agreement with Houston-based ExpressJet for regular 50-seat Fargo/Seattle flights, Morton said.

Microsoft was considering committing to half of the 50 seats, with remaining seats available for other area residents who wanted to fly between Hector and Seattle.

Morton said he's optimistic that Hector/Seattle service ultimately will be offered, possibly beginning in the next 12-18 months.

Service and fares

Four years ago, three airlines - Northwest, United Express and Allegiant Air - offered a combined 16 weekly regularly scheduled flights at Hector.

Today, four carriers - Northwest Airlines / Delta Air Lines (the two merged last year and operate as Delta) - United Express, Allegiant Air and Frontier - offer a combined 24 weekly scheduled flights.

That number will increase in April when American Eagle begins offering three daily round-trip flights between Hector and Chicago O'Hare.

The number of flights at Hector changes through the year as carriers make seasonal adjustments.

Four years ago, Hector had regularly scheduled air service to four cities: Minneapolis, Denver, Chicago and Las Vegas.

Today, the airport has regular flights to eight cities - the four above, and Salt Lake City, Phoenix-Mesa, Los Angeles and Orlando-Sanford (Fla.).

Increased competition has led to lower fares.

The arrival of Denver-based, low-cost carrier Frontier in the spring of 2008 was particularly important, Hector and development corporation officials say.

One example of that:

In February of 2008, before Frontier began Fargo service, a round-trip flight (21-day advance with Saturday night stay) between Fargo and Atlanta cost $512 on Northwest and $514 on United, according to development corporation statistics.

In late October of this year, a round-trip flight (21-day advance with Saturday night stay) between Fargo and Atlanta cost $340 on Northwest/Delta, $434 on United and $330 on Frontier, according to the development corporation statistics.

But average fares at Hector remain relatively expensive, according to Eugene, Ore.-based Sixel Consulting Group, which works with Hector.

Fargo's average fare of $212.74 was 14th highest among the 150 largest U.S. passenger airports in the 12 months ending this past June.

To be sure, geography played a role in that number, calculated by dividing total revenue by the number of passengers paying a fare.

Anchorage, Alaska, had an average fare of $272.04 to top the list.

Other cities with higher average fares than Fargo include Fairbanks, Alaska, Jackson, Wyo., and Bozeman, Mont.

Inevitably, Fargo-Moorhead's location will continue to influence rates and the amount of service offered at Hector, said Mark Sixel, who's been a consultant to Hector for about five years.

"The biggest hurdle that Fargo faces right now, going forward, is its geographic position," he said.

Assume, for instance, that an airline is weighing adding service to Fargo from a hub, say, 1,000 miles away.

"An airline planner can decide, 'I'm going to fly it (the plane) twice to a city that's 500 miles from me or I can fly it once to Fargo,' " Sixel said.

Growth galore

By any measure, Hector has seen significant growth. A few statistics:

- Hector has set monthly boarding records in 10 of the past 12 months.

- Enplanements at Hector rose 8.5 percent from 2007 to 2008.

Nationally, boardings dropped 1.5 percent in the same period, according to the U.S., Bureau of Transportation.

- Last year, Hector ranked 145th in enplanements among U.S. commercial service airports, the Federal Aviation Authority said.

That's up from 165th in 2000.

- Annual enplanements at Hector rose about 29 percent from 2000 to 2008.

Nationwide, annual boardings rose about 11 percent in the same period, according to Transportation Bureau figures.

But keep the growth in perspective. Hector remains a minor player in the airport industry.

Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta led the nation last year with

43.7 million enplanements, according to the FAA.

That's roughly 134 times the boardings that Hector had last year.

The FAA divides airports with more than 10,000 annual enplanements into four categories, based on the percentage of total passenger boardings nationwide for which each airport accounted.

Despite its growth, Hector remains in the smallest of the four categories.

"We're still a drop in the bucket," said Dobberstein.

Still, Hector's success hasn't gone unnoticed by airlines, Sixel said.

"We've done a good job the last couple of years letting the airlines know what's happening in Fargo," he said.

Hector's higher passenger numbers this year - when the recession cut enplanements nationally - has made a big impression on airlines, he said.

"Fargo has great potential," he said.

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