Charting A Course To Accommodate North Dakota Aviation Growth

by Stephanie Ward

Growth. It’s something every airport strives to achieve. It can be measured in a number of ways: the total number of operations, the number of based aircraft, the gallons of fuel sold, the number of hours flown, or the number of commercial service passengers. No matter how you describe it, growth is a significant issue for the State of North Dakota right now. While it is regarded as a good thing on the surface, it comes with a lot of challenges. The State of North Dakota, along with a number of airport sponsors, have been working hard to find resources to address the growing demand for aviation infrastructure such as additional runway length, improved terminal buildings and aircraft hangars.

This growth is spurred by the continued development of the Bakken Oil Field and all of the economic development that comes with this industry. Entry-level jobs at Walmart are paying $17 per hour. Workers are driving for hours to reach the western side of the state since there isn’t enough housing for them close to their jobs. This demand has affected nearly every aspect of life in the region, and communities are struggling to meet the demands for services and infrastructure – including airports.

Both commercial service and general aviation airports are seeing extensive growth in passengers and operations. Overall, the state has seen more than a 10% growth in the number of passengers over 2012 levels and a nearly 192% increase over 2004 levels.

In addition to these commercial air service passengers, there is also extensive growth in general aviation operations. These levels of activity are taxing infrastructure that was designed for a much lower level of use and causing significant growing pains for many airports.

As an example, in Williston (KISN) the current terminal building was designed to accommodate approximately 6,000 passengers per year. They are currently processing more than 7,500 passengers per month. Ten years ago, Williston had an annual passenger-boarding total of less than 4,500 people.  Today, that number has skyrocketed to more than 67,500 passengers through the first nine months of 2013. It’s hard to fathom such growth at a single airport, not to mention the state as a whole.

In response to these needs, the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission (NDAC) has begun an update to the State Aviation System Plan. This new document will identify specific system needs and provide a roadmap for how to achieve the needed improvements to the overall system. Working with Mead & Hunt, Inc., NDAC hopes to complete the update by the end of 2014.

Not only will the North Dakota State Aviation System Plan (NDSASP) be used by NDAC, but it will also be used by individual airports and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as part of the planning efforts for the national airspace system. The updated study will utilize 2013 as the baseline year for all study assessments. The NDSASP will review the basic premises of the existing NDSASP, update the airport inventory data, evaluate progress that has been made since the previous 2007 plan, define benchmarks/development needs for the various airport classifications, identify development strategies, evaluate the approaches to the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS) and non-NPIAS airports, review impacts to the system, and develop recommendations for the next 20 years.

A very important part of the update is an airport manager survey that will be distributed to every public-use airport manager in the state. Completion of the survey is an integral part of the data collection effort and the responses will be a key element in the subsequent analysis and ultimate recommendations for the updated system plan. Airport managers are highly encouraged by NDAC to complete the survey once they receive it in December and return it to Mead & Hunt who, along with their teammate, Helms & Associates, will be compiling the results.

Kyle Wanner, Aviation Planner for NDAC, has noted that the data collection effort for the study will be very important since, in some instances, the individual needs of the airports have changed dramatically since 2007, when the last system plan update was completed.

NDAC is also interested in comments from the general public related to the system planning process and project. Individuals will be able to share comments on the project through a project website that is currently under development. Be sure to check the NDAC webpage at for a link to the system plan website, expected to be launched in early December 2013. Several public meetings are planned for mid-2014, which will afford the public further opportunity to provide comments and insight into the development of the plan. Questions on the project should be directed to Kyle Wanner with NDAC ( or 701-328-9651) or me, Stephanie Ward of Mead & Hunt ( or 517-321-8334).

EDITOR’S NOTE: Stephanie Ward, AICP, is the project manager for the North Dakota State Aviation System Plan and is a Manager of Aviation Planning with Mead & Hunt, Inc. Mead & Hunt provides aviation consulting services such as planning, engineering, architecture, environmental planning, construction administration and air service consulting to airports and state aviation agencies nationwide, and has recently opened offices in both Bismarck and Fargo, N.D.

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