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North Dakota airline boardings surpass 1.2 million, set record for seventh consecutive year


BISMARCK, North Dakota — More than 1.2 million passengers came through North Dakota's eight commercial service airports last year, setting a record for a seventh consecutive year.

The state's western oil boom was a driving factor, with boardings up 23 percent from 2013 in Williston and up 68 percent in Dickinson. Both airports saw upgrades to regional jets and an expansion of service last year. Flights are now offered from both cities to Denver and Minneapolis, as well as from Williston to Houston.

"A large percentage of it is due to the natural resource development in western North Dakota," said Kelly Braun, manager of Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport in Dickinson.

Great Lakes Airlines pulled out of Williston, Dickinson, Jamestown and Devils Lake early last year, citing a pilot shortage that the regional airline said was due to new federal rules requiring co-pilots to log more hours before being eligible to work for commercial airlines. SkyWest took over service in Jamestown and Devils Lake, while United and Delta now provide service to Dickinson and Williston's Sloulin Field International Airport.

"All eight airports now have jet service for the first time," said Kyle Wanner, director of the state Aeronautics Commission.

Total passenger numbers were up 9 percent from 2013. The airport in Grand Forks was the only one in the state that saw a drop in boardings, but the numbers are deceptive, especially given the fact that the airport lost United service to Denver in 2014, Executive Director Patrick Dame said.

"2013 was a record year. We were actually within 2 percent of matching or exceeding a record year in spite of the fact that we lost a carrier," Dame said. "We view it as a very positive situation that we weren't down more."

Air service has grown steadily in North Dakota in recent years, from an average of 52 airline departures per day to five destinations in 2007 to 75 daily departures to 12 destinations, according to the Aeronautics Commission.

Travelers can now fly from a North Dakota airport directly to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Denver, Phoenix, Dallas, Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, Orlando and Tampa, Florida, and Houston.

"Even without the oil, North Dakota has a strong agricultural economy, and the eastern part of the state has a strong research corridor," Wanner said. "Overall it was just a great (boardings) year for the state as a whole, and it can be attributed to multiple factors, not just oil."

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