Taking the high road: As ND economy booms, intrastate flights grow
North Dakota's size and booming economy are prompting more companies to leave the roads and take to the sky to commute to projects in western North Dakota.
"If we don't fly, we're going to spend five hours driving," said Charlie Vein, president of Grand Forks engineering firm AE2S.
That firm became a co-owner with another local company of a used Pilatus PC-12 NG to help it travel among its projects scattered around western North Dakota as well as sites stretching from western Montana to the Twin Cities.
Before the purchase of the plane, trips from Grand Forks to Williston, could mean 12 hours of driving and an overnight stay in a place where the hotels are perpetually booked. Now employees can leave at 6 a.m., arrive at 8 a.m., do their work and be back by supper.
"It's a convenience for employees," Vein said. "We, in essence, get eight more hours of productivity."
His company is not alone. General aviation -- meaning mostly small, private aircraft as opposed to commercial airlines -- is facilitating business travel around the state.
"We're seeing an upswing on that and it's across the state, not just in the Oil Patch," said Larry Taborsky, director of the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission. "Grand Forks is up as much as anywhere."
Brent Seifert, CEO of GFK Flight Support, was part of a group of area businesses that gathered in January to talk about ways to facilitate their work in the Oil Patch, one of them being easier travel.
Since then, the demand for his company's flight services has soared.
"We've added 12 companies from Grand Forks that we're working with," he said. "It's the largest growth spurt we've seen."
GFK Flight Support offers service in three ways. The company stores, pilots and maintains aircraft owned by clients; it charters planes; and it sells individual seats on flights scheduled for a set destination.
Jim Sweeney, president of the Fargo Jet Center, said business is also up at his flight services center and is being driven by companies upgrading their fleets, buying new planes or becoming first-time owners of planes. He also began selling individual seats on charter flights.
"We've seen a considerable increase in business in the last 12 months," he said.
Air travel is not cheap. The prices of a used Pilatus in the model AE2S co-owns start around $1.4 million, according to websites listing planes for sale. Added to that are the costs of maintenance, storage, fuel and pilots.
But paying engineers, attorneys and other professionals to sit in cars for hours is not an efficient use of company time or money.
"By the time you calculate the time, the use of a car, the gas and the impossibility of finding a hotel room, it makes total sense," said Andy Noah, an attorney with Fargo's Nilles Law Firm. He and his colleagues have been purchasing seats on charter flights to commute to the firm's Williston office.
Seifert said demand for seats and charters has been good, but he also is seeing more companies investing in their own planes.
"We're seeing aircraft ownership all over North Dakota on the rise," he said.
According to the Aeronautics Commission, the number of planes registered in North Dakota is 1,789, up from 1,628 at the end of 2011. State excise taxes, based on aircraft purchase prices, are $1.06 million so far this year, compared to $1.26 million last year and $655,000 in 2010.
According to the Aeronautics Commission, North Dakota has 89 public airports, ranging from those serving its biggest towns with daily commercial flights to 17 with grass surfaces instead of paved runways.
Before the oil boom, airstrips at small towns in western North Dakota usually saw little demand apart from a few small planes. Now these airports are attracting aircraft that need longer runways, more hangars and more parking spaces.
"There is a call for that, especially west of the Missouri," Taborsky said.
Airports are usually responsible for providing infrastructure while hangars and other amenities are built by plane owners or service providers.
In Grand Forks, the Airport Authority is planning a new taxi lane to accommodate expected increases in hangar space. It is also updating its master plan for construction.
"The question we're juggling right now is our ability to house corporate aircraft," said airport Executive Director Patrick Dame.
The Aeronautics Commission has a $13 million budget for 2011 to 2013, made up mostly of fees and taxes on fuel and aircraft sales as well as federal money. It projects distributing $9 million in grants during the biennium, but more investment in airports is needed before capacity can meet demand.
"We can do a couple of runways a year," Taborsky said.
The commission is working on a statewide needs assessment for the 2013 legislative session, where the aviation industry will lobby for airports to be a bigger part of the state's infrastructure spending.
Dame said airports do not have the ability to raise money for major construction needs, and while federal money covers most project costs, competition for that money is heavy.
"There's obviously not an endless pot of money there, either" he said.
Along with Aeronautics Commission, he sees a state role in improving airport capacity.
"There's lot of discussion about needs around the state," he said. "We just don't want to see airports be forgotten in that."