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Airline boardings in North Dakota last year reflected the downturn in the oil industry, declining after seven consecutive years of growth

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BISMARCK, North Dakota — Airline boardings in North Dakota last year reflected the slump in the oil industry, declining after seven consecutive years of growth, and one official is questioning the wisdom of building a $254 million airport in the hub of the western oil patch.

About 1.18 million people boarded planes at commercial airports in the state's eight largest cities in 2015, down 5 percent from the 2014 record of 1.24 million, according to the state Aeronautics Commission. It was the first yearly drop since 2007, when boardings totaled about 652,000, right before the oil boom began.

Aeronautics Commissioner Kyle Wanner cited the oil slowdown, a poor year in agriculture and a weaker Canadian dollar as reasons for the drop, which was most evident at western airports. Williston saw a drop of more than 8 percent and Dickinson a decline of nearly 29 percent. Minot, on the fringe of the oil patch, had a drop of about 18 percent.

The decline needs to be put in perspective, "especially once you consider the fact that passenger numbers have grown by 78 percent over the last 10 years," Wanner said.

All eight airports now have jet service, and travelers can fly nonstop to nine major cities: Las Vegas, Denver, Phoenix, Dallas, Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, Orlando and Houston. The state is averaging 65 departures per day to the nine nonstop destinations, compared with 52 in 2007 to only five nonstop destinations.

As service has grown to meet demand, so have airports in the oil patch. The Dickinson airport built an addition to its terminal in 2011, and upgraded from turboprop to jet service. Minot is preparing to open a $94 million terminal next month. Williston last fall received approval and initial funding from the Federal Aviation Administration for an airport in a new location at a cost of $254 million.

But the optimism has been tempered of late. One of the two airlines serving Dickinson pulled out late last year. Minot's finance director last month expressed concerns about cash flow at the new terminal in its first year. And Williams County Commissioner Martin Hanson has been vocal in questioning whether Williston actually needs a $254 million airport, which would be in his district on rural land currently owned by constituent farmers.

The 2015 boarding statistics add more weight to his argument, Hanson said.

"When you drop drilling rigs by 75 percent, the writing is on the wall," he said. "You can't dispute the boarding numbers. They're only going to keep going down. I think the last thing the city needs to do is stick its neck out and build a new airport."

City officials disagree, pointing out that traffic at the current airport is 10 times what it was built to handle. And the explosion in passenger numbers — from about 6,500 in 2006 to 109,000 last year — isn't the only reason the city needs a new airport, according to Wanner.

"They need to move to comply with FAA safety standards, and to accommodate growth," he said. "Being right next to the city, when you add larger aircraft, that changes the picture entirely. They need thicker pavement, they need longer runways, safety areas need to be expanded.

"It still makes complete sense to build a new airport," Wanner said.


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