The addition of an airstair at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport is designed to do more than just unload passengers.
The airstair is providing an opportunity for more charter flights, including winter getaways to sun-soaked southern shores. On Oct. 21, a Sun Country 737 will be loading passengers from the Brainerd tarmac and delivering them to Laughlin, Nev., three hours later. Laughlin, with warm weather, casinos, restaurants and entertainment, is on the Colorado River about 90 minutes south of Las Vegas.
The travelers to Laughlin will return to Brainerd on Oct. 24.
Sid Walker, Walker Travel in Pequot Lakes, is behind the charter flight. He began the Laughlin trip three years ago and intends to offer it every October. He said the addition of the airstair means he is not limited to one or two planes with onboard stairs in Sun Country's fleet. For the trip's first year, Walker's charter switched to a 727 with an onboard stair accessible from the rear of the plane.
Larger planes without their own stairs and at metro airports are served by a style of Jetway, an accordian-like connection between plane and airport. In the past, planes landing at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, such as a 737 Sun Country charter flight, were limited to those with an onboard stair.
In addition to the Laughlin trip, Walker said he wants to run a nonstop flight from Brainerd to Mazatlan, Mexico. The plane would have to make a stop on the return in order to go through customs. Walker said a major selling point for the trips is the Brainerd airport where parking is close to the terminal and free of charge.
"Brainerd has got such a great airport and it's a shame it's not used more. Where can you find a town of 15,000 people with an airport like that? No where in Minnesota," Walker said.
Airport Manager Steve Sievek said Sun Country had one aircraft in its fleet with the onboard stair. So the airport purchased the used airstair for $22,000. A new one can cost up to $150,000, Sievek said.
"It has the potential to make a difference for companies even contemplating a charter," Sievek said.
This fall's Laughlin flight sold out its first-class section and recently had 25 seats left. Cost of the trip is $359 per person for double occupancy for the airfare, hotel and transfers. Walker said the higher cost of fuel raised the price $30 from last year.
"I'm going to keep pushing," Walker said of charter flights, noting the winter trips will hinge on de-icing equipment. If the airport can push through a bigger de-icing truck, Walker said there are endless options for the winter months.
"Sid (Walker) really has a vision to expand the charter flights out of this airport," said Lisa Paxton, Brainerd Lakes Area Chambers of Commerce chief executive officer. "We want to do everything we can to support him."
Paxton said the vision fits with chamber goals to bring golfers to the region using charter flights.
Sievek said the airport is looking into expanding de-icing equipment for winter charters. Mesaba Airlines owns the de-icing equipment at the airport, but it is not large enough to serve the bigger charter aircraft.
A year ago the chamber spearheaded the most recent charge to attract a second air carrier with a goal of direct flights from Brainerd to Chicago by 2005. Pledges to a flight bank were used to attract the attention of a carrier. Paxton said the effort with American Airlines ran up against the Federal Aviation Administration, which reduced flights to Chicago. The chamber is now working raising awareness the airport can handle larger aircraft and to bring in more charters.
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