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Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport spreads its wings, soars into 2019

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Passengers wait at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport as a Delta jet sits on the tarmac outside the terminal. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 12
The Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport services small sports aircraft all the way up to jet planes such as a Boeing 757, providing package and mail transportation, medical helicopter services, charter flights, avionics, training, private aircraft housing as well as commercial travel, and more. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch3 / 12
The Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport is experiencing increases in terms of passengers boarding planes and fuel use by private pilots. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch4 / 12
A conceptual rendering of the terminal addition for the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. Director Steve Wright said the addition -- 4,000 square feet, priced at about $1.7 million -- would serve as a "welcome mat" for the airport and the area it serves. Conceptual graphic / Mead & Hunt 5 / 12
A conceptual rendering of the terminal addition for Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. Director Steve Wright said the funding has been secured and construction should begin in late August. Conceptual graphic / Mead & Hunt 6 / 12
The Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport is now certified as a service station by the Federal Aviation Administration and sports an array of maintenance services. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch7 / 12
The Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport has a wide array of uses -- from servicing small sports aircraft all the way up to jet planes such as a Boeing 757, providing package and mail transportation, medical helicopter services, charter flights, avionics, training, private aircraft housing as well as commercial travel, and more. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch8 / 12
Expansion plans are in the works for the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, which would give NorthPoint Aviation and Wings Cafe greater space for their respective operations. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch9 / 12
Passengers prepare to go through the security checkpoint at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport recently for a commercial flight. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch10 / 12
Planes wait in a hangar at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch11 / 12
The Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport has a wide array of uses -- from servicing small sports aircraft all the way up to jet planes such as a Boeing 757, providing package and mail transportation, medical helicopter services, charter flights, avionics, training, private aircraft housing as well as commercial travel, and more. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch12 / 12

It might seem a little obvious to say, but things at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport are on the up and up.

The Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport has a wide array of uses—from servicing small sports aircraft all the way up to jet planes such as a Boeing 757, providing package and mail transportation, medical helicopter services, charter flights, avionics, training, private aircraft housing, as well as commercial travel, and more.

"This airport is the best of both worlds—it's the smaller airport where you can enjoy aviation from a recreational standpoint, yet it's big enough to enjoy the larger amenities like the bigger airports," Director Steve Wright said.

The proof is in the pudding—both in terms of commercial flights, corporate fliers or private aviators.

The Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport is coming off a banner year in 2017 when the terminal served more than 20,000 passenger trips (or, in aviation jargon, an "enplanement," a term for each time a passenger boards a plane). The increase amounts to an average monthly increase of 18.1 percent over the previous year. December alone saw a 41.7 percent increase compared to 2016. This represents the latest leap in an upward trend extended back years. As recently as 2014, the airport served 16,000 passenger trips.

These trends, Wright said, are continuing in 2018.

"It's other people coming from outside of the Brainerd lakes area, coming in to experience what we have to offer," Wright said.

Wright said, as a whole, the airport is approaching the threshold in terms of passenger trips, a 50 percent load factor, when they may look at adding another carrier beyond Delta Airlines. The summer months, in particular, are rising above that benchmark in terms of traffic, he added, while the winter months bring the yearlong average down a notch for the time being. Until then, it's a matter of preparing the airport to properly accommodate and serve that influx.

Much of that, Wright said, could be credited to business flyers—a subset of the customer base that, compared to tourist travel, remains relatively steady throughout the year.

Andy Larson is a public speaker who often travels across the country to lecture on financial services. His expertise is primarily in retirement services and pension funds—a role, he noted, that regularly takes him to faraway places, from New York City to Los Angeles and everything in between.

Larson said the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, in terms of travel, is a sound option because of its expediency—whether it's the 30-second trek from the free parking lot to the terminal, the exceptionally short wait times in security and baggage-claims, or the smooth 20-minute commute to the Twin Cities. He noted the airport's reliability in terms of flight times is also comparable or better than larger competitors in the metro markets.

"There's just something I don't like about sitting 45 minutes in a security line, so I fly out of Brainerd," said Larson, who travels via the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport roughly four to eight times a month. "A lot less time, a lot less complications."

General Aviation

On the general aviation side—which accounts for about 50 percent of airport business—Wright said similar trajectories are emerging alongside the commercial flights—long story short, the amount of fuel flowage (which is the most accurate way to track private plane usage) is also increasing at an encouraging clip.

NorthPoint Aviation—a corporate presence that partners with the airport to accommodate general aviation flyers—said the airport is beefing up its maintenance operations and is now certified to repair aircraft up to 12,500 pounds, whether they're aluminum or composite constructions.

As such, it's now certified as a service station by the Federal Aviation Administration and sports an array of maintenance services, particularly for sea planes, which are a common fixture for the lakes area.

"That was a pretty good accomplishment on our part," Northpoint General Manager Joe Birkemeyer said. "That also opens the door to become a service center for manufacturers like Cessna, Piper, Beechcraft—most of those require you to be a repair station before you can be a service center for them."

Expansion

Previously, Wright said there are plans for expansion on the site of Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport.

In general terms, more facilities and hangers for private businesses, predicated on newly installed water/sewer infrastructure on the western and northwestern portions of the airport.

Wright said steps are being taken to build an addition onto the main terminal, which would serve as the offices for NorthPoint Aviation. The addition would address a lingering issue, namely space limitations in the terminal, which place the NorthPoint's reception area and the terminal's restaurant, Wings Cafe, in the same area, within sight and hearing of each other.

The benefit of the addition is to maintain the intimate connection with NorthPoint while establishing a distinct space for each business to operate.

"Wings has been a good partner, but this allows them room to expand and us to expand," Birkemeyer said. "It gives us a new fresh entrance to the general aviation public, so all your corporates and single-engines. That's going to attract more new customers."

Wright said bids were made and constructions costs were submitted in May—with a local company, Nor-son Construction, billed as the contractor.

The expansion will total about 4,000 square feet, Wright said, an addition that includes a reception counter forming the main hub of the arrival/departure terminal, as well as a public waiting lounge, conference rooms, pilot resting rooms, a pilot testing room, a pilot lounge, bathrooms and other amenities. Beyond the internal developments, designs intended to update the exterior of the terminal to blend the original structure with the new addition.

Final costs, Wright said, look to be about $1.7 million from preliminary designs to the final touch of paint—costs, to be carried by the joint partnership of Crow Wing County and the city of Brainerd, as well as as $1.9 million federal grant, which will be used for the addition and other capital amenities that need to be addressed.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article misstated that the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport is now certified to perform maintenance and repairs on aircraft larger than 12,500 pounds. For clarification, the airport is certified to service aircraft up to 12,500 pounds. The Dispatch regrets this error. 

Fact Box

Business: Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport

City: Brainerd

Number of employees: 90

Interesting or little known facts: In 2017, the airport served more than 20,000 passenger trips. This represents a 18.1 increase over 2016, while the month of December saw a 41.7 percent increase alone. To put it in perspective, the airport was only serving 16,000 passenger trips as recently as 2014.

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