Aberdeen's recent airport problems have given the city $1 million worth of bad publicity over the last seven days, Northern State University President Jim Smith said.
When Mayor Mike Levsen invited Smith to talk during the State of the City address, Smith said he's anxious to help make Aberdeen's air service better. But to be dependent on one airline with two flights a day is not adequate, Smith said.
Smith said he preferred the days when Aberdeen was served with three daily turboprop flights, rather than two jet flights a day.
City transportation director Mike Wilson said Thursday afternoon the two CRJ-200 regional jet flights a day to Aberdeen total 100 seats. When Saab 340 turboprops visited Aberdeen three times a day, the seat number was 96 seats per day. SkyWest Airlines, based in St. George, Utah, is the Delta Connection carrier serving Aberdeen.
Meanwhile, at the Aberdeen Airport Board meeting Thursday, Wilson said that perhaps 200 to 300 people were impacted by a series of flight cancellations in recent days that were the result of a de-icer breaking down at Aberdeen's airport. The de-icer truck is owned by Delta Global Services, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines.
Airport Board members encouraged Wilson to send Delta Global Services a letter telling the airline that it needs to have a better contingency plan in case the de-icer breaks down again in the future.
The letter will also mention the impact the canceled flights had on the community and the prospect of improved communication because some people scheduled to be on the canceled flights didn't know that Delta had arranged to accommodate passengers with buses running back and forth to Minneapolis, Wilson said after the meeting.
"Well, it certainly doesn't look good for the airport," Steve Kaiser, board member, said about the canceled flights. He said the scenario could have given people the impression that Aberdeen has a "two-bit airport."
Wilson said Delta officials are aware that they need a better backup plan and will come up with a solution. He said he fielded a lot of complaints about the canceled flights, but that Delta has worked hard to accommodate the affected passengers.
Wilson said an engine in the back of the de-icing truck blew up. The engine, he said, operates the pump that dispenses de-icing fluid that's often needed during winter months because it's dangerous for jets to fly with ice on them. The engine also heats the tank containing the fluid, Wilson said. The fluid is a mixture of glycol and water.
He said Delta officials took the truck in to be repaired Monday, but were told the engine needs to be replaced. That work could be finished yet this week, he said.
FedEx also has a de-icing truck at the airport, but it also had a mechanical problem, so it couldn't be used as a backup, Wilson said.
That's why Delta had to call in a de-icing truck from Omaha, Neb., which arrived Wednesday afternoon. The truck's arrival was delayed, though, because it couldn't travel at night. Also, due to the height of the truck as it sat atop a flatbed trailer, permission had to be sought from transportation officials in Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota.
Airport board members said they don't understand why it took so long for Delta to call for a backup de-icing truck - nearly 48 hours after the problem was discovered Saturday afternoon, said Rolf Johnson, board member.
"I'm sure they lost enough money that (it won't happen again)," said board chairman Mike Erickson.
Wilson said Delta also faces the prospect of losing Aberdeen flyers over the long haul because of the problem.
Erickson, though, said discretion was probably wise. There can be serious problems when ice-covered jets fly, he said.
It doesn't make sense for the airport or city to spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars to buy a backup de-icer, Wilson said. But it does make sense to have a contingency plan in which another de-icing truck could get to Aberdeen in eight to 12 hours if there's a problem, he said.
Regularly, two flights arrive in and depart from Aberdeen daily. Arrivals are at 2:38 p.m. and 10:54 p.m., with departures at 6:45 a.m. and 3:05 p.m.
The Saturday afternoon flight arrived, but could not leave because of ice buildup. It departed about 11:30 a.m. Sunday, Wilson said, after Delta workers manually removed ice from the jet. Neither of the flights from Minneapolis arrived in Aberdeen Sunday or Monday.
The Tuesday afternoon flight into Aberdeen arrived, but couldn't leave until about 3 p.m. Wednesday. The Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon flights into Aberdeen did not arrive.
Wednesday's late flight arrived in Aberdeen and departed Thursday morning as the airport's normal flight schedule resumed.
Wilson said that while snow removal from the runway went pretty well during a winter storm about two weeks ago, one flight in Aberdeen had to be rerouted because the runway was too icy. The night flight from Minneapolis on Jan. 28 ultimately had to land in Bismarck, N.D., he said. It flew into Aberdeen the next morning, then departed late in the morning, he said.
If the readings that measure how slippery the runway is had been known by officials at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the flight likely wouldn't have left for Aberdeen, he said.
At the State of the City address, Wilson said it would be helpful for people to contact South Dakota's congressional delegation. The federal Department of Transportation pays SkyWest about $1.2 million per year to provide service between Aberdeen and Minneapolis. In 2011, the DOT selected SkyWest to serve Aberdeen through the federal government's Essential Air Service program.
Smith said during the Thursday address that he would like to see more flights a day or see more than one carrier serve Aberdeen.
Because the birthrate isn't what it was in the Dakotas, the only way Northern will grow is by bringing in students from around the world, Smith said. After the meeting, Smith said people fly to Northern almost every day. In addition to students, those people include staff members and consultants.
Also at the State of the City gathering, Jim Barringer, executive vice president of Aberdeen Development Corp., said city officials have met in the past with representatives of Northwest Airlines (now Delta) and United. In those conversations, the airlines told Aberdeen representatives that if there is demand, the airlines will provide the flights. Demand does increase during hunting season, Barringer said, but he's not sure if the airlines ever gave Aberdeen a target figure.
In recent years, Levsen said many Aberdonians have taken the attitude that nothing can be done about the city's air service. But maybe it's time to take a look at airlines again, he said.
Nobody likes to use the word subsidy, Levsen said, but sometimes things don't happen unless you make that happen.
Carl Perry, one of those in attendance, said he hasn't given up on trying to improve Aberdeen's airline service. Perry commended the job that Wilson has done recently.
Levsen said an airline will never increase the number of flights just to be nice to us. The city has to find a way to make additional service profitable to the airline, he said.
In other action at Thursday's Airport Board meeting, the board:
·Approved payment of $35,150 to JDH Construction for ongoing renovation work to the airport terminal.
Wilson said a new luggage conveyor will be installed Feb. 18.
·Set a public hearing for March 21 concerning the removal of more than 54 acres of wetlands from airport property.
·Approved paying $182,866 to the Federal Aviation Administration for engineering services for a planned runway project. Now, the ends of two airport runways touch. The so-called "decoupleing" project will change that and will include other work.
The airport/city will be reimbursed for the vast majority of the total after the work is done. Ultimately, the federal government will cover 90 percent of the cost, the state 5 percent and the city 5 percent.