Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport is the fourth largest in the state in a lot of ways, said Jeff Wig, airport manager.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize in the community the size and scale of the airport that we have,” Wig recently told Crow Wing County commissioners during a recent update on airport operations. “We are in many ways, by many measures the fourth biggest airport in the state.”
Wig said the measures include runway lengths, instrument approaches and capacity to handle passengers. Brainerd is behind Minneapolis, Duluth and Rochester — the three international airports — by a number of measures. The airport has three flights per day to and from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
SkyWest Airlines serves Brainerd with 50-seat CRJ-200 jets. SkyWest service began Dec. 15, 2012. The airport offers monthly Boeing 737 flights direct from Brainerd to Laughlin, Nev. Wig said other charter destinations are being explored with Sun Country.
Wig said when he started at Airmotive Enterprises in 1980 when he was 16, there were about 33 planes based at the field, no jets and no helicopters. The airport now has 84 planes based on the field. The airport averages 101 flight operations per day, landings, take-offs and practice landing approaches are each counted as one operation.
“We are very fortunate now to have SkyWest Airlines servicing our airport they are flying under the Delta flag,” Wig said.
With all the concerns about Delta pulling out of servicing the Brainerd Lakes airport previously, Wig said in essence there is just a new regional carrier flying under the Delta flag.
SkyWest is the sixth largest regional carrier but the name isn’t as recognized as they often fly under the name of other airlines like Delta.
“They are the biggest airline you have never heard of,” Wig said, noting the SkyWest jets look like a short DC-9.
Airline service is a minority of the airport’s operations and accounts for less than 10 percent of the airport’s traffic — a smattering of military and the rest as general aviation.
“Most of the traffic you see takeoffs and landings on any given day have nothing to do with Delta or SkyWest,” Wig said.
The airport’s Fixed Base Operator serves the general aviation with fuel and maintenance and provides flight instruction services from private pilots to commercial ratings. As of January, the business owned by the Reidl family changed hands to a new ownership group headed by D.J. Dondelinger.
“We’ve had a lot of change going on at the airport during the last few months,” Wig said, adding the new Fixed Base Operator is investing in the business in fuel trucks, purchasing a new airplane and new crew uniforms. “They are hoping to see the business grow and have been really good to work with.”
Other airport-based businesses and organizations include: AW Research Labs, Brainerd Helicopter Service, North Memorial Air Care, Avionics of Minnesota, Civil Air Patrol, car rental companies National/Alamo and Hertz, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Air Tanker Base, DNR Aviation, Minnesota State Patrol aviation.
Wig said the Air Tanker Base, on the east end of the field, is the largest tanker base in the state.
Businesses on the field typically lease directly from the airport.
Future possibilities include commercial development of aviation-related businesses.
“Because of the beautiful facility we have and the room we have, we have a lot of opportunity for growth,” Wig said.
The airport has land east of the main terminal building and is thought of as a development park.
“Our commercial area would have to be aviation related, so these are businesses very unlikely to locate anywhere else,” Wig said, noting Al Cibuzar’s AW Research Labs, which utilizes its airplane as part of its business.
Airmotive Enterprises wants to expand its flight school, Wig said, adding there is a looming pilot shortage anticipated in the next five years. He likened it to the shortage of machinists as students didn’t go into that skill and now machinists get five job offers.
“I think the same thing will happen with pilots,” Wig said.