To learn of the popularity of the Brainerd lakes area, one only has to visit the local airport.
A sampling of passengers flying in and out of the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport shows that some are here for business, some for pleasure and some to visit family. Their departure points are from all across the country. Though many have roots in the area, others are visiting for the first time.
From January through May, there have been 6,703 passengers flying with Mesaba Airlines, an increase of more than 200 people during the same time period last year, said Steve Sievek, airport manager. It's been a trend at the airport for the past few years, he noted, with 2006 passenger numbers over 2005, and 2005 an increase over 2004.
A passenger on Wednesday walked to the terminal after arriving on a Mesaba Airlines flight at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. Brainerd Dispatch/Nels Norquist
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"It's a good sign," Sievek said. "It's coming back up now so we're pleased."
Summer is traditionally when the airport is busiest, with four daily departures compared to three in the winter. Sievek said the surge in passengers can be attributed to the area's recreation popularity. Business travel also is on the rise, he added.
Recreation was why Tom Griep and his godson, Bertrand Gutierrez, on Wednesday flew into Brainerd from Los Angeles. Griep, originally from Pine River, makes an annual trip to Brainerd to visit family and drives another eight hours to Canada, where he catches another plane for a fly-in fishing trip in northwest Ontario.
Griep said Wednesday's trip, which included a layover in Minneapolis, was uneventful. "And we like that."
Doug Baysinger, a Brainerd native who since 1981 has lived in Clover, S.C., arrived Wednesday in Brainerd for a family reunion that will include fishing trips on Whitefish Lake and in Canada. Brainerd Dispatch/Nels Norquist » Purchase reprints of this photo.
Griep and Gutierrez were met at the airport by Griep's sister, Terrie Griep. It's been a year since she saw her brother, who chose a life among palm trees over the frozen tundra.
"He doesn't care much for January and February," Terrie Griep laughed.
"That's a nice contrast to the continual paradise in California," Tom shot back. "It's not too bad here right now. It's green and pretty."
Doug Baysinger, too, has fishing on his mind. The Clover, S.C., resident flew from Charlotte, N.C., into Brainerd for a family reunion. His destination will be Whitefish Lake and, like Griep, a fishing trip in Canada.
"I expect to catch walleyes," Baysinger said. He even brought an empty cooler with which to haul his limit of fish back to South Carolina.
Dennis Illar, an engineer from Pittsburgh, flew into Brainerd on Tuesday for a business-related trip and back to Pennsylvania on Wednesday. It was his first trip to Brainerd and he wished he had more time to spend fishing the local lakes. Brainerd Dispatch/Nels Norquist » Purchase reprints of this photo.
"You're putting a lot of pressure on me," joked his uncle, Roger Peterson, who lives in Crosslake and will serve as Baysinger's fishing guide.
Baysinger, who moved from Brainerd to Clover, S.C., in 1981, said he gets back to Minnesota every two or three years. He was pleased Wednesday's flight was ahead of schedule and said he appreciated having a local airport to fly into. It's less time spent waiting to see his family.
"And it's working out great so far," said his mother, Donna Baysinger, who accompanied Peterson to pick up her son at the airport.
Flights on the 34-seat SAAB 340 turboprop aircraft operated by Mesaba Airlines in and out of Brainerd have averaged about 80 percent capacity, Sievek said. Morning and weekend flights tend to be most popular with business travelers, he said, and night and weekend flights are also popular with tourists.
A women waited as a Mesaba Airlines flight arrived Wednesday at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. Brainerd Dispatch/Nels Norquist » Purchase reprints of this photo.
Dennis Illar, from Pittsburgh, spent one day in Brainerd - his first visit to the area - on a business trip. He arrived at the airport three hours before his flight was due to depart Wednesday because he had no place else to go.
"I wish I could have had extra time," he said. "Maybe I would have went fishing."
Illar, an engineer, said he travels often for work. While he is more accustomed to bigger airports, he said he prefers smaller ones like Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport.
Tom Griep, a Pine River native currently living in Los Angeles, flew into Brainerd on Wednesday to visit family and to take a fly-in fishing trip to Canada with his godson, Bertrand Gutierrez. Brainerd Dispatch/Nels Norquist » Purchase reprints of this photo.
"It's always a pleasure flying into smaller airports because it's a lot less crowded and demanding," he said. "It's relaxing here."
And with his downtime lasting several hours, Illar brought a bagful of reading material to keep him busy.
"Always carry book because you're always either waiting in the airport or riding on a plane," Illar said.
Sievek said it has been several years since the airline had tracked the ZIP codes of who is flying in and out of the airport. The last study, he said, showed a large number of Brainerd residents flew locally, as well as a large number of people from Aitkin, Wadena and Staples.
"From Walker down we draw a good portion of air traffic," Sievek said. "Our catchment base is pretty large, actually."
Sievek said he wished the Brainerd airport could add flights to accommodate more passengers, but he realizes there's limited aircraft available from Mesaba Airlines. He said he hopes to see regional jets, with more passenger seating, replacing the propeller-driven SAAB 340 airplane. Finding another carrier would be wishful thinking, he said, because the airline industry is struggling. Adding a second runway has helped eliminate cancellations, he said.
MATT ERICKSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5857.
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