HIBBING - Within a decade, all commercial air service to state airports other than the three "big" ones - Minneapolis, Duluth and Rochester - could disappear.
And that could include Range Regional Airport in Hibbing.
That's according to some aviation experts who weighed in as part of Minnesota 2020's (MN2020) latest report "Holding Pattern: Problems and Progress in Rural Aviation."
Members of MN2020 discussed the report last week at Range Regional Airport. Aviation is a $12.2 million industry in Minnesota and supports nearly 165,000 jobs, said Matt Entenza, MN2020 senior fellow.
But air service in greater Minnesota is threatened by declining passenger counts, airline cutbacks and controversy over federal subsidies to carriers.
"It's very important that we work together to make sure that the aviation industry is strong," he said. "... We want to protect it and ensure jobs."
The report highlights additional challenges for greater Minnesota airports, including questioning the fate of the federal Essential Air Service (EAS) program.
Recent economic conditions have hit small- and medium-sized airports across the nation the hardest, according to the report.
Report Author Conrad deFiebre, MN2020's transportation policy fellow, said that over the past five years, small airports like Range Regional have lost 10 to 15 percent in scheduled flights and medium airports have lost up to 18 percent. By comparison, large airports have only dropped just more than 2 percent.
"This concentration of air service at the biggest airports is a continuing phenomenon, and one that in the long-run threatens service to smaller places like this airport," deFiebre said.
To avoid the disappearance of air service at smaller airports, deFiebre recommended that both local communities and airlines take more responsibility for the vitality of subsidized passenger routes under the EAS program.
He also suggested that the state reduce the aircraft registration fees and raise aviation fuel taxes.
"It's a better reflection of the actual use of public airways," added deFiebre. "Such a reform of the state's outdated user-financing system for aviation infrastructure, safety and education would promote business-friendly flying alternatives to shrinking commercial airline service in much of the state."
DeFiebre explained that the current tax on fuel is outdated, and having a registration fee - higher in Minnesota than in most states, he said - is a disincentive to purchase new aircraft here.
"The fuel tax would also bring in some money from visiting aircraft," he noted. "It'd be a win-win for general aviation in the state."
Entenza called the report "the most comprehensive in years," adding MN2020 will use its finding to petition policy makers and advocate for change.
"It's important for rural Minnesota that some changes be made in the tax structure, making it easier for businesses ... and for commercial aviation," he added. "We need to work with policy makers to make sure regional airports, like Hibbing and Duluth, can maintain the passenger service vital to economic development and our region."
Shaun Germolus, executive director of the Chisholm-Hibbing Airport Authority (CHAA) which governs RRA, said air service here has led to a 30 percent increase in enplanements over the past two years.
He credits that to working with air service provider, Delta Airlines.
Germolus also announced that the CHAA has submitted its comments on Delta's bid on the upcoming EAS contract.
If the bid is OK'd by the federal Department of Transportation (DOT), Delta would offer two flights per day from RRA beginning Dec. 1. Today, Delta flies three times per day from RRA.
The company also anticipates changing its aircraft from a 34-passenger Saab to a 50-passenger regional jet.
"Air service is important to our region," Germolus said. "... We are looking forward to continuing to work with Delta if in fact the contract is awarded to them."