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Dickinson’s airport taking shape, flight

Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport manager Matthew Remynse, seen here at the airport on Jan. 31, has been in his current position since 2006. During his tenure, the airport has added regional jet service from Delta and United and grown by leaps and bounds (Press Photo by Bryan Horwath).1 / 2
In a submitted photo from June 2013, jets from United Express and Delta Air Lines sit next to the terminal at Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport south of Dickinson.2 / 2

Matthew Remynse, manager of the Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport, has overseen a lot in his six years in Dickinson.

He oversees a facility that continues to shatter passenger boarding numbers every year and, in 2013, added regional jet service from major carriers United and Delta.

Remynse has a lot on his plate these days.

He spends time on the phone discussing the possible addition of major hubs and studying what step could be next in the airport's expansion. Still, Dickinson’s airport remains a small-town operation where its manager has a hand in just about everything.

That was never more evident than when, during an interview at his office in late January, a traveler dropped by his office, looking for help with a pressing problem — the soda machine had eaten his money.

“Sorry, am I interrupting?” said the customer. “My co-worker put some money in the machine and didn’t get a soda pop.”

Remynse did what he could to help the man and his friend get reimbursed. Not typical of a person in charge of the day-to-day operations of an airport, even one of Dickinson's size.

But such is life for Remynse, who came to Dickinson as the airport’s manager in 2006.

Since then, he has been at the forefront of a lot of changes, including the addition of direct flights to Minneapolis and Denver last year.

“When I did my interview with the board, I told them I planned on being here for four years,” Remynse said. “I wanted to get my experience and then move up to the next level of airport. In 2010, though, we started really picking up, and I remember thinking back then that the goal of getting regional jet service was 100 percent obtainable.”

Improving service

With western North Dakota’s economy booming from the impact related to the Bakken energy play, Dickinson was beginning to look more attractive to the major airlines.

A little push from Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., helped convince United and Delta to bring 50-seat regional jet service to the Queen City, with United offering service to Denver and Delta to Minneapolis.

Before the two big boys came along, the airport offered service to Denver through Great Lakes Airlines -- which it still does -- though the association with United and Delta clearly elevated the airport’s standing.  

“Delta was the big surprise to me,” Remynse said. “When I started, I never thought we’d get Delta because this community had never had Minneapolis service. We tried for a long time with Great Lakes to get a Minneapolis route, but they tried that in Williston and it didn’t work very well. United announced on Feb. 2 (2013) that they were coming and, low and behold, Delta announced on Feb. 6. That was a good surprise. It made everything more challenging, but those are good problems to have to work through.”

Thanks in large part to the added United and Delta service, Dickinson’s airport recorded 35,125 boardings in 2013, representing an eye-popping 50 percent increase from 2012. Both airlines announced in January that they will add a third daily flight to Minneapolis and Denver and, according to Remynse, Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport could soon add a few more hubs.

“Right now, we have two major air carriers that go to two great hubs,” Remynse said. “The board has discussed this in the past, but I think what the airport needs to look at now is adding some other hubs. Can United put in a Chicago flight? Can Delta put in a Salt Lake City flight? Is there a demand for those hubs? Another big question is whether United can get directly to Houston from Dickinson. Those types of additions aren’t out of the realm of possibility at all.”

Focused on improvements

Dickinson Airport Authority chairman Jon Frantsvog said the airport's growth has been exciting to both watch and manage, though growing pains have also been part of the deal.

“It’s been a real challenge, but these are fun problems to have,” Frantsvog said. “The growth has been just amazing. We’ve had to increase our knowledge base and our resources across the board, and there has been a learning curve. But we’re trying to keep up. In a way, it’s almost impossible to keep up because the growth has been so dramatic. We’re really happy with the enthusiastic response from the community after the addition of the regional jet service.”

Though airlines are aware of the business opportunities in places like Dickinson and Williston — not to mention small cities in the region with new or improved airports — Frantsvog said it hasn’t always been that way.

“I remember meeting with a representative from Frontier Airlines once and he wasn’t sure where North Dakota was on a map, much less Dickinson,” Frantsvog said. “I think both us and Delta were nervous about how the service to Minneapolis would be received, but it has taken off and that’s been exciting. We’re focused now on the improvements that we need to make, which really will start with our surfaces.”

Remynse said the top two long-term improvement projects for the airport revolve around enhancing the facility’s runway and finding a solution the space issue within the airport's cramped terminal. Remynse said he hopes to have a longer runway and new terminal within the next several years.

“Our biggest thing is going to be putting in the new terminal,” Remynse said. “In my opinion, our terminal and then our runway are our top priorities. In the future, the airlines are going to move away from having three or four 50-seat aircraft and move toward having two 70-seaters. Right now, we cannot allow a 70-seater to come in on our current runway and taxiway configuration. The weight of that aircraft would just crush what we have.”

Currently in the planning stages, the airport hopes to beef up its runway by extending it to between 7,200 and 7,600 feet long and 150 feet wide. Today, the runway is 6,400 feet long and 100 feet wide. If all goes according to plan, Remynse said the new runway could be completed sometime in 2018.

The more challenging project of the two, according to Remynse, will likely be the terminal, though FAA regulations and stipulations will have to be met. For a picture of what a new terminal might look like, Remynse said he envisions a smaller version — about 30,000 square feet — of the Bismarck Municipal Airport terminal.  

“As far as the terminal, right now it can barely handle two 50-seaters at the same time,” Remynse said. “Adding more people to that would start to add up fast in the limited amount of space we have. We’re going to be looking at multiple projects every year to get ready for all these improvements, and we’re going to have to manage all those projects, along with our current level of operation.”

'On the map now'

While Frantsvog said he and other Airport Authority members hope North Dakota’s political leaders continue to push for federal funding and the fast-tracking of certain projects, those sentiments are certainly not lost within the ranks of the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission.

“The Dickinson airport is a shining example of a successful airport that has transitioned to no longer needing the federal government’s Essential Air Service Program,” Kyle Wanner, the Aeronautics Commission's interim commissioner, stated in an email on Feb. 3. “It’s expected that passenger growth at the airport will continue to grow at a significant pace. As this growth continues, the NDAC will continue to work with the FAA and the local airport leaders to work out a funding solution for much-needed infrastructure improvements at Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport.”

A sleepy, small town airport just a few years ago, Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport will soon have the capacity for 109,000 passengers per year, a far cry from when Remynse began his post nearly eight years ago.

“We’re on the map now,” he said. “Western North Dakota, in general, is a big money-maker for the airlines — there’s no doubt about that. They’re watching us closely, which is good.”   

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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