If you are one of those people who thinks the Fairmont Municipal Airport has minimal value because it doesn’t handle commercial airline traffic, prepare to be educated.
“This is a general aviation airport, meaning there is no scheduled airline service,” said Lee Steinkamp, airport manager. “General aviation means everything else — recreational, business, ag operators, emergency medical transport, flight training, military operations, survey aircraft.”
He points to a wall in the terminal where a large map is stamped with familiar business logos: CHS, Avery Weigh-Tronix, Green Plains, 3M, Hancor, Kahler Automation, Rosen’s Inc., Cloverleaf Cold Storage, Devenish Nutrition, Mayo Clinic Health System, Fairmont Foods.
“Every major employer in town, every single one either charters or owns airplanes that fly out of here,” he said.
Dennis Turner, chairman of the Fairmont Airport Advisory Board and a retired pilot, noted that the map needs to be updated to include Beemer and Co., Valero, Center for Specialty Care, C&B Operations, Militello Motors, Agco, Fairmont Aerial Ag and others.
As owner of Fairmont Aerial Ag, Steve Holmseth knows first-hand the positive financial impact the airport has on the area.
“It’s a very viable asset to the whole area. In my business, I run quite a few operations. We take off 10-15 times a day to spray crops. That’s just one airplane, and we have as many as seven going in the summer,” he said.
“That’s the small part. The larger part is that there’s a 15-20 bushel (per acre) gain on a lot of the crops that we spray. That goes into the farmers’ pockets trickles down directly into town, to the grocery store. That buys cars. That buys pickups. That buys tractors. Many, many people depend on our ag economy.”
It’s not just Fairmont economy that benefits. The airport serves as a hub to planes whose occupants are headed to Blue Earth, Jackson, St. James and throughout northern Iowa. Bigger corporate jets require more landing and take-off space, like Fairmont’s 5,500-foot runway.
“We’ve got a facility that can handle some pretty good sized aircraft,” Steinkamp said. “We’ve got rental cars available in town. We’ve got a variety of hotels that are close. We’ve got good restaurants.”
These amenities make Fairmont a popular stopping point for planes traveling to and from AirVenture, the world’s largest convention for recreational pilots held annually in Oshkosh, Wis. This year’s event, scheduled for the last weekend in July, is guaranteed to bring a variety of aircraft to the local field.
“This is a regional airport,” Turner said. “The closest other regional airport is Mankato. Worthington and Albert Lea are not considered regional. We have an instrument landing system (ILS) here too. When weather is lousy, this is the airport you come to because of the ILS.”
The number of aircraft that utilize the airport varies from day to day, but don’t expect to catch a glimpse of one when you drive by. Steinkamp said that on a recent Monday morning, six planes had landed and left — all before 9 a.m.
Turner, who works for Kahler Automation, cited his boss, Wayne Kahler.
“Wayne has a saying that things happen at an airport in 15-minute segments. That’s perfectly true for us. We come out, get the airplane out, and we’re loaded within 15 minutes,” he said. “We come back, taxi to the hangar door, unload our gear, put the plane back in the hangar, close the door, and everybody’s gone in 15 minutes.”
Currently, there are 29 planes based at the airport’s five hangars, with a portion of one of the buildings kept open for transient aircraft whose pilots require their machines to be housed overnight.
“We’re full. We could fill another 10-unit hangar right now,” Steinkamp said, but a new hangar is at least three years away. The airport receives $150,000 annually from Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for such projects, and the facility can bank up to five years worth of those funds.
The FAA provides the majority of funding for the airport’s projects, especially those targeting safety issues.
“Safety is paramount, and we have a very good safety record here,” Turner said. “Our two runways were both reconstructed over the past several years.”
Since 2010, more than $7 million in infrastructure improvements have been completed at the local airport, with the city only contributing about 10 percent of the total cost. The city’s share for qualifying projects runs from 5-20 percent, with the Minnesota Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division and the FAA funding the remainder of the cost through their grant programs.
Steinkamp pointed out the new pavement, reconstructed hangar area and general maintenance as the most recent FAA-funded projects completed, with total investment running about $1 million.
“If somebody says I’ll give you $900,000 for a $1 million project, it’s kind of a no-brainer,” he said.
The FAA funds are provided by a seat tax on every airline ticket sold, and an aviation fuel tax also contributes to the pool of funds available. MnDOT receives its funding from the legislature, fuel taxes and registration fees.
Competition for the limited funding is stiff, and applying for the appropriate grants requires delving into thousands of pages of data and research, a technical and time-consuming task. The airport contracts with KLJ, a St. Paul engineering firm with expertise in municipal airport projects.
“It’s like hiring an architect to build your house,” Turner said. “They know all the rules, all the regulations. They provide representation on a daily basis with the people in MnDOT and the FAA. They get paid, but they don’t get paid a lot for what they do.”
The airport board receives regular verbal and written updates on the status of each project and what is next in the five-year plan. The next project will be to replace the 40-year-old HVAC system in the terminal, but no major construction is planned in the immediate future.
“Not right now. I think our airport serves us and any business well,” Steinkamp said. “This airport impacts thousands of employees.”
“And we’re not just talking about Fairmont,” Holmseth said. “The region is fortunate to have an airport like this.”