A Minot economic engine
Waguespack: Airport’s ‘front door to your community’
“The airport is the front door to your community,” Ryan Waguespack, senior vice president of the National Air Transportation Association, told a group of local aviation representatives gathered at a meeting last week in Minot.
Waguespack and Megan Eisenstein, managing director of the association’s Industry and Regulatory Affairs, were in Minot to discuss general aviation with those involved in the industry locally. The group met at Dakota Territory Air Museum on Tuesday.
Waguespack has been traveling the country holding “General Aviation Advancing America” discussions. This week, Waguespack and Eisenstein visited Fargo, Grand Forks. Minot and Williston.
Eisenstein said National Air Transportation Association (NATA)’s biggest members include fixed-base operators, airports and cargo 135 operators. The organization is based in Washington, D.C.
“It’s incredible to come to these communities and hear from you what kinds of issues you are dealing with,” Eisenstein said.
Waguespack said NATA is trying to figure out different solutions for such things as how to survive in the market, how does business continue and how does business continue to prosper.
“That’s what kind of formed this ‘General Aviation Advancing America’ because it’s really about this community. It’s really about Minot and how this tool – the airport – is an economic engine for your community,” said Waguespack.
He said far too often communities do not look at airports as a positive thing but some look at their airport “more as a nuisance or ‘why are we investing all this money?'”
“But it truly can be pushed and used to bring people into your environment,” Waguespack said.
Waguespack said when he and Eisenstein first saw the Minot International Airport terminal this week, he said they thought, “Wow! What a beautiful terminal.”
“This airport is the front door to your community,” he said. He said they’ve been in some areas where they’ve talked and the people do not recognize that of their local airport.
He said when people fly into Minot on commercial or personal aircraft, their first 90 seconds gives them a glimpse of what the local community looks like. “And it’s the last 90 seconds when they leave,” he said.
Right now, he said business and general aviation activity is sitting as a whole at 65 to 75 percent where it was from last year. It depends on the region,” Waguespack said. He said some are exceeding their numbers over 150 percent.
“The key factor in all this is business travel hasn’t returned yet. Everyone is kind of banking that 2021 is going to be the year business travel gets back into full swing,” he said.
He said what’s also been striking is private aviation has kind of evolved from a luxury leisure now to an essential way to travel where if you’re concerned about your health, if you’re concerned about your teammates, if you’re concerned about your colleagues.
“It’s been really good to see general aviation flight training programs exploding across the country. Hangars are in short supply everywhere,” Waguespack continued
Deanna Stoddard, Minot International Airport operations manager, said locally they have had a consistent waiting list for hangars for the past four or fives years just in terms of people getting in. She said a few new hangars have been built in the last few years as well.
Air ambulance, both fixed wing and helicopters, operate from the airport.
The airport is also used as a transfer station from smaller communities. Patients are brought by vehicle to the Minot airport and then transferred by air to other medical locations.
Waguespack also noted, “Airline capacity is going to take some time to come back. We recognize that.” But he said jobs and communities don’t wait for that and it’s why there’s an uptick in private aviation.
“If the pandemic can settle down and the election can settle down, hopefully we can rebound,” he said.
When Waguespack asked how the pandemic has affected Minot and its aviation activity, aviation representatives at the meeting said there has been an impact.
Warren Pietsch, local pilot and air museum board member, said the airport came off an extreme high with the oil boom, lost that and then COVID-19 arrived at the same time. He said the airport had very few flights for awhile.
Stoddard said the airport’s flight schedule has definitely come back to how it was prior to March but their load factors are not where they were. She said when COVID happened everything downturned at airports. “We’re seeing the activity come back but certainly not at the level it was,” she said.
Waguespack said when that capacity on commercial flights will return and when it does it’s going to exacerbate the pilot shortage. “We’re going to need more,” he said. And that doesn’t even touch the technicians and mechanics, he said.
A number of businesses operate at the Minot airport.
Local aviation representatives at the meeting said the Canadian border being closed due to the pandemic also has had an impact on aviation in Minot.
Pietsch and Don Larson, president of the air museum board, said the lack of Canadian travel also impacted visitation at the air museum this year.
Waguespack said a surprising thing to him is the Canadian impacts. “Never once thought about that,” he added.
Stacey Albertson, operations manager of AvFlight, a business providing flight and pilot services including U.S. Customs, said they are not getting much Customs business now.
Suzanne Blessum, co-owner with her husband, Jay, of Minot Aero Center, said people have come from the western part of the state because there are not enough planes to rent or flight instructors on that side of the state. Minot Aero Center includes aircraft maintenance, flight school and aircraft rental.
Stoddard and Pietsch pointed out at the meeting that Minot is a very active aviation community.
“For a smaller, remote community, we do have a lot of very robust GA (general aviation) activity which is great – FBOs to our flight school, the maintenance, the charters, this wonderful museum. I know we have some smaller GA airports in our region as well. I think North Dakota as a state does really well with the general aviation side of things,” Stoddard said.
Pietsch said the air museum has the ACE and PACE programs for school students to learn about aviation and that has grown into a two-year high school aviation program at Minot High School Magic City Campus. He said that program has produced half a dozen pilots and three or four instructors in the past few years. “It’s been a very positive promotion for aviation to influence kids from grade school up through high school and offer them an educational function throughout,” Pietsch said.
The Farstad Foundation provides $25,000 a year for educational purposes to the air museum. Of the $25,000, $5,000 goes to outreach programs and $20,000 for eight aviation scholarships, Larson said.
Looking toward the future, Stoddard said there will be demands that they need to meet in coming years and how do they do that with existing restraints exacerbated by COVID “in terms of the financial revenues, things that we need to figure out and talk about to support this side of our community.”
Several people at the meeting said there is no longer an Airport Committee as part of the Minot City Council. The Airport Committee, a committee existing for many years, was disbanded about three years ago when the council reduced its size.
Waguespack said it’s definitely going to take a while after the pandemic to get everything back as it was before.