ST. CLOUD (AP) -- Concerns about the capacity of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to handle growing passenger and cargo traffic have some officials looking at a potential relief valve: the St. Cloud Regional Airport.
About 75 miles and less than two hours' driving time from Minneapolis -- much less from the northern suburbs -- the airport is four miles east of downtown St. Cloud, close to Highway 10 and Interstate 94 and near the proposed North Star commuter-rail corridor.
The city-owned airport already is preparing for substantial growth, having begun a two-year runway extension to handle airliners such as Boeing 727s and 737s.
St. Cloud officials have begun talks -- so far unfruitful -- to add scheduled service to compete with Mesaba Airlines, whose 10 daily Northwest Airlink flights out of St. Cloud shuttle passengers to and from Brainerd and MSP. Airport Director Brian Ryks said officials have approached United Express, American Eagle and Southwest Airlines.
Despite the airport's unimposing scale, U.S. Reps. James Oberstar and Collin Peterson and state Deputy Aeronautics Director Duane Haukebo consider St. Cloud a potential alternative to increasingly crowded MSP.
Instead of being hemmed in by the city -- as MSP is -- St. Cloud's airport sits among corn and soybean fields. The closest concentration of people is 761 inmates about 2 miles away at the 110-year-old state prison.
Oberstar, one of Congress' leading transportation authorities, said expansion of service at St. Cloud has "some real attractiveness" because of the area's low population density, undeveloped buffer areas and the prospect of commuter-rail service.
He sees St. Cloud holding more potential for air cargo shippers than for passengers, at least in the short run. But even that could help MSP, he said.
The more air traffic that can be diverted from MSP during prime hours, the more service can be freed for "very lucrative passenger operations," he said. He added that those diversions also could help reduce MSP's noise problems.
Peterson said the nation's hub-and-spoke airline system faces severe challenges. And he said passengers' frustrations over parking shortages, baggage hassles and flight delays at hub airports present opportunities for places such as St. Cloud.
Jeff Hamiel, executive director of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), said that although he doesn't see much competition in the short run, there eventually might be a market for direct service between St. Cloud and another hub, such as Chicago or Denver.
Mesaba, which serves St. Cloud with 34-seat Saab 340 jets, recently reduced its daily arrivals and departures from 12 to 10. That frustrated Ryks, who said the number of arriving and departing passengers at the airport jumped from 15,951 in 1995 to 52,104 in 1999.
He noted that Duluth, Rochester and Sioux Falls, S.D., all have direct service to Chicago, and he said St. Cloud is due.
Jon Austin, spokesman for Northwest Airlines, said St. Cloud is a good fit for Northwest's hub-and-spoke system, which feeds passengers from smaller cities to hub airports for connecting flights. The economics aren't right for Northwest to provide direct service from St. Cloud to other hubs, he said.
"It may make sense for (another airline), but not for us," he said.
Ryks said St. Cloud's 60,000 residents and a population of 350,000 within an hour's drive should be able to support more scheduled service, particularly as growth continues to sprawl northwest from the Twin Cities.
"This airport really is kind of a sleeper," he said. "There's so much opportunity in front of us."
The state's updated aviation system plan, by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, recommends St. Cloud be developed "to absorb additional demand for air service. It has the potential to become a 'second-tier' airport, like Duluth and Rochester, potentially attracting passengers from the northern parts of the Twin Cities."
For that to happen, the airport's main 5,200-foot runway should be lengthened, the report says. Earlier this month, a $17 million, two-year project began to extend it to 7,000 feet. The airport's master plan estimates future improvements could cost from $27.5 million to $66.3 million, depending on growth.
St. Cloud will ask voters this fall to approve a half-percent sales tax increase to be used partly for airport projects. The Legislature would need to concur.
While MAC does not have jurisdiction over St. Cloud Regional, Hamiel said he has urged St. Cloud officials to "find the money to do it. ... Make the decision to build now and prepare for population growth."
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