From Airports To People, The Minnesota Airports Conference Showcased Excellence In The Industry!

by Dave Weiman
Published in Midwest Flyer – June/July 2019 issue

The annual Minnesota Airports Conference held April 24-26, 2019 at the Willmar Conference Center, Willmar, Minnesota, featured everyone from the managers of large commercial service airports, to the smallest of general aviation airports, and their commission members; as well as experts in everything from airport engineering to unmanned aircraft systems and airport funding and regulations. The conference, held in conjunction with the Minnesota Council of Airports (MCOA) and Minnesota Aviation Trades Association (MATA) annual meetings, included exhibits, an awards program, and tours of Willmar Municipal Airport and the Fagen Fighter WWII Museum in Granite Falls, Minn.

Minnesota Vikings player, Harrison Smith, escorted conference attendees to the Fagen Museum prior to the opening luncheon at the Willmar Convention Center in which he was the keynote speaker. The museum houses a pristine collection of fully operational World War II aircraft and vehicles, and features fine art, bronze sculptures, and interactive multimedia displays. The museum is a tribute to the men and women of the “Greatest Generation.”

Following the tour, Willmar Mayor Marvin Calvin introduced Smith at the luncheon and welcomed attendees to his community.

Throughout Smith’s college career at Notre Dame, and into his early years in Minnesota, the star safety football player felt a gripping anxiety whenever he flew on team charters, so he decided there was no better way to get over his fear than to learn how to fly himself. Smith got his private pilot certificate at Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, Minn.

Cassandra Isackson, Director of the MnDOT Office of Aeronautics, and Kathy Vesely, Assistant Director, briefed attendees on airport funding, personnel changes in their office, changes at the State Capitol, changes that will occur with state-owned navaids, and the increased use of drones in the state.

“In 2019, we’ve seen Governor Walz take office and we’ve welcomed Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher to the Minnesota Department of Transportation,” stated Isackson. “The Commissioner knows the passion aviation brings and understands the impact our airport system has on businesses all around Minnesota. New faces are appearing at MnDOT Aeronautics, too, and we continue to have the same commitment we have always had – to serve Minnesota airports!”

Isackson said that the time to modernize the state’s navigation systems has arrived, and mentioned that the use of drones will likely increase throughout the state, but that they are regulated by state and federal law, and regulatory compliance takes effort.

Lindsay Butler, Deputy FAA Airports District Office Manager, gave an update on airports from her perspective, and Brian Ryks, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), describe the activities and developments at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) and its six general aviation reliever airports: Airlake (in Lakeville), Anoka County-Blaine, Crystal, Flying Cloud (in Eden Prairie), Lake Elmo and St. Paul Downtown.

Ryks said that airline passenger numbers are gradually increasing, despite a trend toward less operations as larger jet aircraft have been replacing the smaller regional jets at MSP. Eleven (11) airlines have added 45 new routes between 2016-19. Sun Country Airlines, which has traditionally flown north/south routes, is now adding east/west routes to connect travelers through Terminal 2 at MSP. MSP ranks 17th in the country in total passengers among commercial airports.

Construction-wise, MSP cut the ribbon on its new InterContinental hotel on July 30, 2018. The hotel is just steps away from Terminal 1, Concourse C, and features sophisticated guestrooms with spectacular views of the airport, three bars and restaurants, 30,000-square-feet of meeting space, and is conveniently located 20 minutes from downtowns Minneapolis and St. Paul, and 5 minutes from the Mall of America. The hotel is already getting awards. The Minnesota Real Estate Journal chose the InterContinental hotel the winner in its Hospitality Category in 2018.

Currently under construction at MSP is a 5,000-space parking ramp, which will include auto rental facilities and a transit center, at a cost of $240 million.

The total annual economic output of MSP is $15.9 billion with an economic impact of $7.1 billion.

MAC’s six reliever airports may be small when compared with Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, but a recently completed economic impact study shows they have a substantial impact on the area’s economy.

According to a study by InterVISTAS Consulting, LLC, MAC’s reliever airports generate an estimated $756 million in total annual economic output for the seven-county Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. The airports also support nearly 1,030 jobs directly, producing $56 million in wages, and an estimated $94 million in annual visitor spending.

MAC is investing in its reliever airports with a new, expanded and relocated primary runway at Lake Elmo from 2849 to 3400 feet. Airlake is expanding Runway 12/30 an additional 800 feet to approximately 4900 feet, and Crystal Airport will be resized to better reflect its current operations. In addition to St. Paul Downtown Airport – Holman Field getting a new restaurant in its historic terminal building, the flood wall built in 2008, was deployed for the 6th time this year and has done a great job of keeping the Mississippi River at bay during this year’s spring thaw. The deployable part of the flood wall can reach an additional 3200 feet in length and is 8.5 feet in height (

Steve Wright, Director at Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, and former Manager at Willmar Municipal Airport-John L. Rice Field, told the “Willmar Airport Story” with Eric Rudningen of Eric’s Aviation Services. Much of the success of the airport is attributed to the pioneering efforts of John and Mary Jane Rice of Willmar Air Service, who made the airport one of the largest Mooney sales and service centers in the world, along with their son-in-law, Bruce Jaeger (

Concurrent sessions at the conference included engineering/technical, airports 101; land use compatibility; airport design and operations considerations for special operations; airport managers: 60 tips in 60 minutes; concurrent uses and land releases; sustainable and resilient airport design; the Capital Improvement Program and airport funding; solar panels and tall towers; a discussion on what to do if obstructions are identified on an airport; snow and ice control planning; and how best to connect an airport to its community.

The tornado that severely damaged the Faribault, Minn. airport on September 20, 2018, was the example used in how best to respond to an airport disaster. Travis Block of the City of Faribault and Mark Knoff, Executive Director of MCOA, focused on the lessons learned throughout the ongoing recovery process, many of which can be applied to other types of disasters.

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and how they affect airports, was discussed at length. The session covered FAA’s historical regulation of UAS, modern restrictions of their use around airports, and attempts being made to integrate them into the National Airspace System.

Stephanie Ward, AICP, Aviation Planning Manager, Mead & Hunt, discussed concurrent uses and land releases, and whether or not they are right for airports.

Brent Goetz, Senior Aviation Environmental Specialist, RS&H; and Matt Dubbe, National Market Leader, Architecture, Mead & Hunt, discussed sustainable and resilient airport design. The general aviation terminal at Appleton International Airport (KATW) in Appleton, Wis., was cited as an example of sustainable and resilient design.   

To help take the stress out of developing an airport Capital Improvement Program, Melissa Underwood, Sr. Planner Project Manager, Short Elliott Hendrickson, Inc. (SEH); Jake Martin, Aviation Safety Inspector, FAA; Dan Boerner, MnDOT; and Pam Schroeder, Airport Manager, Fillmore County, provided resources to answer questions about funding sources, financial plans, and preparing an airport board or city council for existing and future project needs at their airport.

The session “Connecting Airports to the Community: Last Mile,” discussed the importance of reliable/dependable ground transportation at airports. Among the options discussed were rental cars and courtesy cars. While rental cars are seldom available at small general aviation airports, some airports have been successful in getting the local car dealer to sponsor a courtesy car in exchange for displaying an advertisement on the doors of the vehicle. Otherwise, the norm is for the municipality to commission a used police car. Regardless, all airports need to ensure that the ground transportation needs for pilots and their passengers are met, and that this information is available in airport directories and on ForeFlight. Speakers included Chris Morgan, South Region Planner at MnDOT Aeronautics; Kreg Anderson, Airport Manager of Chandler Field Airport in Alexandria, Minn., and Mark Nelson of Hawk Aviation in Rush City, Minn.

Other speakers included Kevin Baker of Mankato Regional Airport, Garrett Caffee of Fafinski Mark & Johnson, Kurt Claussen of Rochester International Airport, Chris Fredrick of the City of Buffalo, Minn., Brent Goetz of RS&H, Eric Hanson and B.J. Skar of HDR, Matt Wagner of Mead & Hunt, Marcus Watson of TKDA, Bill Towle of St. Cloud Regional Airport, and Rylan Juran, Christopher Morgan, Praveena Pidaparthi, and John Schroeder of the MnDOT Office of Aeronautics.

At the annual awards luncheon, individuals were recognized for their accomplishments and contributions, and airport sponsors, consultants and contractors for their excellence in airport development. Please refer to each photo and their captions for details. Photos by Michael McCarthy of the Center for Transportation Studies, University of Minnesota.

The conference is hosted by the Minnesota Council of Airports (MCOA) and the Minnesota Department of Transportation, and facilitated by the Airport Technical Assistance Program (AirTAP) of the University of Minnesota. The emcee for the conference was Bill Towle, Chairman of MCOA and Airport Director at St. Cloud Regional Airport. Mark Knoff is Executive Director of MCOA.

The 2020 Minnesota Airports Conference will be held April 29 – May 1 at the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, Minn.

Minnesota Airports Conference photos by Michael McCarthy of the Center for Transportation Studies, University of Minnesota.

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