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Williston's long-term plans likely include new airport

WILLISTON -- United Airlines announced Tuesday it will add flights between Williston and Denver, but letting the planes land was still up to the City Commission, which must balance short-term need for air service and long-term plans for its airport.

One consideration with adding the United flights is the weight of the jets. At 48,000 pounds, they are nearly double the current 25,000 pound weight restriction on the runway at Sloulin Field International Airport.

Increasing the weight limit reduces the lifespan of the runway. But city leaders were expected to approve the increased weight limit Tuesday night and accept financial responsibility for any damage to the runway because they anticipate building a new airport.

"I'm 99.9 percent sure we're going to get a new airport," City Commissioner Brent Bogar said before the meeting.

The Federal Aviation Administration is studying possible sites for an expansion of the airport, which includes expanding at the existing site or locating it outside of Williston. The project is estimated to cost $100 million to $150 million.

If the airport relocates, the sale of the land for the current airport -- about 600 acres in a prime location for development -- would help pay for the project, Mayor Ward Koeser said.

"My gut feeling is that we'll move," Koeser said. "I'll be surprised if we don't move."

The airport also owns mineral rights to one producing oil well and another that has been permitted, airport manager Steven Kjergaard said. The FAA also contributes to the cost of an airport expansion, he said.

City leaders would like to see a new airport completed in five to seven years, Bogar said.

A typical airport relocation takes 10 to 15 years, Kjergaard said.

"We're hoping to be one of the fastest airport relocations in the history of the FAA," Kjergaard said.

If the FAA doesn't approve a new airport, expanding the current one is estimated to cost $120 million and could cause the airport to close for a year for work on the runway, Kjergaard said.

The oil boom has brought huge demand for air service in Williston.

In 2005, the airport averaged 500 to 600 boardings each month. Now a typical month has 2,700 to 3,000 boardings, Kjergaard said.

Kjergaard estimates that's only capturing 25 percent of the Williston market, with many people driving to airports in Minot, Bismarck or elsewhere.

United could mean another 4,500 boardings per month, Kjergaard said.

United will have three daily, nonstop flights to Denver on 50-seat regional jets operated as United Express by Expressjet Airlines. United anticipates service will begin Nov. 4.

Great Lakes Airlines offers daily flights to Denver and Minneapolis, but has canceled many flights because of mechanical and crew issues, Kjergaard said. As of Tuesday, the carrier had canceled 14 flights this month.

United's planes will be newer, so the hope is that service will be more reliable, Kjergaard said.

"It's definitely going to be a game-changer for Williston," Bogar said.

An increased weight limit for the runway could be a catalyst for more airlines to want to add Williston service, Bogar said. Delta and Frontier have been in talks with airport officials, he said.

But with more flights, the airport will need to add space or trailers to accommodate more people in the security area, Kjergaard said. Parking already is a challenge, and will only become worse with the additional flights.

Tom Rolfstad, executive director for Williston Economic Development, said better air service is critical for Williston's growth.

"We could use a better airport and better air service yesterday," Rolfstad said. "Unfortunately, like everything else, it tends to lag the development. We've got to kind of live with too much demand and not enough supply."