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Bemidji airport traffic increases

People lugging pull-along luggage streamed out of the Bemidji Regional Airport Terminal on Wednesday evening, beating a major snowstorm due today, Christmas Eve.

Bemidji's airport, however, has been busy all along, and not always due to visitors or tourists.

"We are not a tourist center," Bemidji Regional Airport Authority Executive Director Harold Van Leeuwen said during the authority's Wednesday night meeting. "we are a government center, Bemidji State University, and we serve a large population."

Enplanements increased 20 people, or 15 percent, for November, Van Leeuwen told authority members. November showed 1,588 enplanements, while November 2008 saw 1,391.

Business and government travel keep Bemidji traffic steady, while tourism travel at other airports, such as Brainerd, fluctuate seasonally.

"We are one of the only commercial airports in the region that's up, not down," Van Leeuwen said. "Minneapolis/St. Paul is down 1-2 percent and everyone else is down 10-15 percent."

Even the Enbridge Energy Co. Inc. pipeline project is helping airport traffic, he said, as about 50 people per month are using the Bemidji airport, mostly subcontracted pipeliners flying in family or spending weekends in the South with families.

"That traffic should continue to the summer, and is getting us through a low spot," Van Leeuwen said, referring to a usual slowdown after Christmas until spring.

"Now this is a regional hub," Authority Commissioner Joe Vene said. "I hope that new businesses will see larger aircraft."

The newly remodeled runways will accept larger, heavier aircraft such as the Boeing 737 and MD-90, Van Leeuwen said. Such aircraft have used the airport, and are anticipated as charter flights to fly in Western Collegiate Hockey Association teams next year to the new Bemidji Regional Event Center.

"Bemidji is just not 12,000 people," Van Leeuwen said. "A 100,000 people are within a 45-minute arc. We have to tell that story over and over."

Fees are making it easier to travel from Bemidji to Minneapolis/St. Paul through Delta, he added. The add-on price one-way from Bemidji through the Twin Cities and elsewhere on a Delta flight is $80 to $110, he said. That fare structure doesn't work for those flying from or to Bemidji but then using another carrier to or from the Twin Cities.

Northwest Airlines disappears next Friday, as the merged airline takes the name Delta Airlines, he said.

Efforts continence to convince Allegiant to service Bemidji, Van Leeuwen said. He has been invited to attend the Allegiant Conference in February.

Relocate CAP

Vene asked about efforts to relocate the Northland Composite Squadron of the Bemidji Civil Air Patrol. "I appreciate the youth-building activities of CAP, and would want this airport to do what it can for a future location."

Bemidji CAP is now located in a 1940s temporary building that has no connected water or sewer service and it's not to code for electrical service, Van Leeuwen said. Aside from needed that space for the airport's terminal expansion project, the building is no longer able to pass code and must be demolished.

The goal was to relocated the CAP outfit into the Bemidji Skeet and Trap Club building on the west edge of the airport property, a building it must leave to satisfy airport safety regulations.

But it would cost CAP $180,000 to purchase the building, and efforts so far to secure state or federal funding have not succeeded, Van Leeuwen said, adding that CAP has an April deadline to leave its building.

"They continue to use the airport terminal lobby, and are welcome to do so, except when that part of the terminal is under construction," he said.

There are efforts to negotiate with a doctor, who would build a hanger for his plane and allow CAP to use a second floor as its meeting place and storage, he said. But under the condition that he can lease the property for $1 a year.

That could work, Van Leeuwen said, but regular lease rates would apply should CAP leave the building. Better, he said, is if the CAP moves its airplane back to Bemidji from Walker, where it is now stationed as that's where CAP's pilots live.

"I understand they (CAP) will be accepting an aircraft if they have the space," Vene said. "If they are successful on a site here, they will have an aircraft."