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North Dakota airline boardings slump in March due in part to oil slowdown but still are strong

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BISMARCK, North Dakota — North Dakota airline boardings have dropped for the first time in years and industry officials say slumping oil activity is a likely reason, though not the only one. They do not believe it is the start of a long-term trend.

Passenger numbers at the eight commercial service airports in North Dakota last month dropped a total of 3 percent from March 2014, according to the state Aeronautics Commission. The slide correlates with a drop in oil production — drilling rigs in western North Dakota are at their lowest level in more than five years — and industry officials believe the energy slowdown is affecting air travel. Bismarck was the only western city where boardings didn't decrease in March.

"Talking with car rental companies, they've lost some contracts from some of the oil companies. That's probably the main indicator," said Andy Solsvig, director of Minot International Airport, which saw the biggest percentage drop in boardings in the state last month, at 8.7 percent.

Airline passenger numbers have grown in North Dakota along with oil production since the mid-2000s. Airports in the oil patch hubs of Dickinson and Williston upgraded service from turboprops to regional jets, and Williston added service to Houston, from where many oil executives fly. Traffic at the Dickinson airport has grown 6 times beyond its design, and traffic at the airport terminal in Williston is 10 times what it was built to handle.

A drop-off in oil-related travel is not the only likely explanation for the boardings drop in March, however. Frontier Airlines pulled out of Minot in January, and a weaker Canadian dollar also has meant fewer travelers from Canada flying out of North Dakota airports, Solsvig and state Aeronautics Director Kyle Wanner said.

"If you look at where passenger numbers are not as strong as they were a year ago, it's in Grand Forks and Fargo, on the eastern side of the state," where there is no oil production, Wanner said.

Grand Forks, Fargo and Minot had the steepest drops in boardings when measured in actual passengers, according to commission data.

Neither Wanner nor Solsvig expects March to be the start of a long-term slide in boardings numbers in the state, noting that passenger numbers still soar high above where they were when the state's oil industry began taking off.

"We've had seven consecutive years of growth ... we knew there had to be some leveling off, regardless of oil activity," Wanner said. "It was expected to happen at some point. We just didn't know when."

A slight slowdown "is partly a blessing disguise," Solsvig said. "It allows everyone to catch up on the (infrastructure) projects they've started."

For example, Minot is building more parking for its airport terminal, and Williston officials are planning a new airport.

Even if airline passenger numbers for the rest of the year are stable or show a slight decline, 2015 likely still will be one of the top boardings years in state history. Year-to-date numbers show a 57 percent increase over January-to-March figures from five years ago, "and still the strongest boarding year we've had to date," Wanner said.

"When you look back at where we were in 2010, you can see that these numbers are still very strong," he said.


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