Sioux Falls airport loses link to west, but airport boosted by jump in air cargo

South Dakota State Roundup

Published October 1, 1995  | October 1995 issue

The recent announcement that Sioux Falls Regional Airport will lose its three daily Skywest flights to Salt Lake City marks the second time this year that the airport has lost passenger service. Boardings at the airport are expected to slip from last year's record pace, but strong growth in cargo flights has boosted revenue and employment at the airport.

This summer, U.S. Air Express discontinued four daily commuter flights from Sioux Falls to Kansas City, Missouri, with three flights stopping in Sioux City, Iowa. About 500 had made the trip to Kansas City each month aboard the 19-passenger plane.

By the end of November, Skywest will stop its three daily flights to Salt Lake City, meaning about 1,700 monthly travelers will have to find other means to fly west. Skywest flew 50-passenger planes to Salt Lake with load factors of about 40 percent; a 50 percent load factor is considered the lowest level at which an airline can make a profit on a flight.

Mike Marnach, executive director of the Sioux Falls airport, says some passengers have mentioned that they miss the direct flights to Kansas City, and others will certainly miss the connections westward, but the airport has nearly 30 flights a day and travelers can make connections to anywhere by taking one of the many flights to Minneapolis or Denver.

Amid these cutbacks in passenger service, Sioux Falls has enjoyed a boom in air freight shipments. Federal Express and UPS have begun flying large planes into Sioux Falls in recent years, and the airport has built a special cargo ramp to handle the increased traffic. Two years ago, the airport handled about 10 million pounds of cargo, which was up from a previous average of 4 million pounds. In 1994, cargo shipments totaled 34 million pounds. The airport generates revenue from landing fees and renting offices and hangars, Marnach says, so the increased cargo shipments have increased revenue, as well as the number of employees: Over 400 work at the airport, and most of those are employed by the airlines-the airport employs 16 full-time employees.

For those passengers who must now make connections at hubs in Minneapolis or Denver, there's still another option, Marnach says: "People in South Dakota drive." And they're likely to drive to Sioux City or even Omaha to catch a flight. With Southwest, Midwest Express and Frontier flying into Omaha, Sioux City airlines have been slashing prices to match the competition, he says. "People will drive 180 miles to Omaha to save $50 on a ticket."

That propensity to drive was one reason for the state's short-lived attempt at an intrastate air service two years ago, and may have fueled the brief elimination of flight service between Sioux Falls and Rapid City this summer. From the beginning of June to mid-July, there were no flights between the state's two largest cities after Skywest discontinued service on its 50-passenger planes. But Great Lakes Aviation, operating as United Express, stepped in to offer three daily flights on 19-passenger planes, two extending to Minneapolis and one to Chicago. The Chicago extension gives Rapid City its only direct flight connection to Chicago.

The ridership on the Rapid City-Sioux Falls flights has been "very, very good," according to Bill Bacon, manager of Rapid City Regional Airport. "We're happy with the response." Most of the passengers are business travelers, Bacon says, but he expects other travelers to use the service as the winter holidays approach.

As for air freight, since Rapid City's freight is transported mainly on passenger flights, the amount is much less than at Sioux Falls: about 1.8 million pounds last year, and this year projected to be somewhat less.