On any runway, there are tiny moments of turbulence: up and down, touch and go with the pavement, or before enough thrust is generated for an aircraft to take off.
For Steve Wright, the director of the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, 2017 may represent a year of turbulence, but turbulence defined by highs instead of lows, that looks to lift the airport into a promising 2018.
Establishing a presence
Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport is coming off a banner year in which the terminal served more than 20,000 enplanements (a term for each time a passenger boards a plane), 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 only 16,000 enplanements.
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KLICK! Photo Gallery - Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport - 59 photos
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Wright said this points to the rise of aviation as an artery of the lakes region, much as the Mississippi River, then the railroad, served Crow Wing County's transportation and economic needs. Crucial functions in society-such as package delivery systems or emergency medical transportation-are already leaving the roads and taking to the skies.
Mass transit, Wright noted, may follow suit.
"It has become the new train or the new bus or the new transportation system that our nation depends on," he said.
Wright noted between paying for gas, hotel fees and lost time, it's often more practical, and cheaper, to take the 20-minute round-trip flights to Minneapolis.
"We can carry passengers, 20,000 people generating out of Brainerd alone, to multiple points across the globe. That's pretty significant," he said.
Wright identified two main factors contributed to this jump in local air travel. The first was falling ticket prices, meaning flying is more affordable. Fare for small-market flights-to nearby airports like St. Cloud, Minneapolis or Eau Claire, Wis.-sat at about $800-$900 just a half-decade ago. For comparison, the current price for shorter flights is about $500-$600. It's a matter of supply and demand, Wright added, as an airliner devotes more flights to an airport, the more prices plummet.
It's reached a point at which the airport is facing capacity issues during the tourist-heavy summer months. Sometimes, there just aren't enough seats, Wright said, and it's prompted him to pursue scheduling additional flights or pushing to draw larger aircraft during those peak times.
On the other hand, falling prices are converging with a rising economy, which means people are more comfortable spending their money on airfare. As awareness spreads, and more people and businesses see the practical benefits of flying versus other modes of travel, Wright said, business at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport only looks to increase in coming years.
Laying the groundwork
Last fall saw the completion of the airport utility extension project, an initiative by the city of Brainerd to provide a much-needed pressurized water/sewer system to support fire-sprinklers for many of the off-terminal facilities, such as hangers.
Not only did that provide fire security measures, it also drew in business, Wright said. The Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport works in conjunction with private entities, whether that it's onsite restaurant, Northpoint Aviation or Delta Airlines, but 2017 also marked the arrival of Life Link III, an air ambulance service that provides helicopter coverage for the region. Life Link III's commitment to the airport was largely instigated by the new water/sewer extension, Wright said, and it meant the inclusion of ten new jobs to the area. About 90 people are employed at the airport.
Along with commercial flights, recreational and business aviation are seeing a resurgence in the wake of the Great Recession-for a smaller facility like Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, non-commercial "general aviation" accounts for roughly 50 percent of revenue.
There are plans in place to build more facilities and hangers for private businesses, predicated on the water/sewer infrastructure expansion. 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 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.
Taken on a bumpy ride
2017 also featured a moment when the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport found itself in the center of a brewing national controversy and the subject of the nightly news.
During an October commission meeting, commission member Jeff Czeczok made a motion to "protest" the actions of NFL players who knelt during the playing of the National Anthem to protest police brutality. The Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport had been selected an alternative landing site in the event of unfavorable conditions during the Super Bowl, scheduled for Feb. 4 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
While Czeczok's motion was not seconded and did not receive support beyond sympathetic comments by fellow commission members, the incident received national coverage-upon which journalists, pundits and commentators on social media weighed in.
Wright said the situation was taken out of context by media outlets who portrayed the situation as one where the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport-a tax funded, public-use entity-would deny service to flights carrying NFL players based on the political statement of a single commission board member.
That was never a possibility, Wright said, who added he regarded the media frenzy with bemusement at the time, especially rumors that the airport was going to "set up spike strips on the runway." Now, in hindsight, it's little more than a bump in the road.
"It's the joy of being run by the public," he said. "When we have these public facilities, you do get different viewpoints and different ways of thinking that come into these arenas. It's just part of our democracy."
Not a rich man's playground anymore
Wright said the two most common misconceptions he comes across, in regards to the airport, is the impression that local air travel is unreliable and the notion that air travel is largely a luxury of the wealthy.
Both are false, he said, noting that issues of reliability have been largely eliminated since a downpoint around 2010-2012-in fact, in comparison to larger, metropolitan airports, the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport is not as susceptible to delays or traffic congestion, which means more efficient, comfortable traveling conditions.
Wright said the common misconception that local airports are a "rich man's playground" may have been true in the past when aviation was closer to its infancy and only the wealthy could afford its new and novel technology.
Now, aviation has matured to a point where it's can be an everyday convenience for more and more stratas of society, said Wright, who added the airport has an explicit goal to make its airfare affordable to families, of which he is seeing more and more in the terminal.
But, even beyond notions of affordability and practicality, flight still remains a thrilling experience, Wright said, and that, in and of itself, may be enough for some.
"There is some fascination of flight. We have always enjoyed flying as a people. You get up and you fly and you get to experience this world like a bird sees it-or, as I like to say, as God sees it-it's just phenomenal," Wright said. "It's a four dimensional experience you can't have on the ground."
As the book closes on 2017 and 2018 begins, the airport is reaching a point where it's not only self-sustaining, but profitable. Currently, the airport benefits from federal grants that subsidize $50 for every ticket, as well as joint ownership between Crow Wing County and the city of Brainerd, which pitch in $300,000 every year. Profits are enough to meet the rest of the $1 million budget, but projected increases may also mean adding destinations to the 250 the airport already serves, more charter flights and bids for an additional carrier to complement their contract with Delta Airlines.