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Most North Dakota airports take hit last year amid low oil prices, depressed Canadian dollar

Submitted Graphic by North Dakota Aeronautics Commission

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Most North Dakota airports last year reported passenger boarding lows they haven't seen in at least five years, prompting some to revisit marketing strategies to attract more customers.

The lone exception was Bismarck, which saw a 4.35 percent increase with boardings increasing from 259,734 to 271,022—a new record, according to numbers released Friday by the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission

The decreases at the state's other major airports ranged from 7.84 percent at Hector International Airport in Fargo to almost 60 percent in Dickinson.

The Fargo boardings were at 395,614 last year, compared to 429,251 in 2015. The airport's numbers were the lowest since 2012.

At Grand Forks International Airport, fewer than 129,000 passengers boarded last year, the lowest year-end boarding report since 2011 when the airport boarded just under 117,000. Last year's numbers are almost 10 percent behind 2015 boardings.

That's similar with North Dakota totals. Airports in the state saw an overall decrease year-over-year, losing almost 11 percent from 2015.

At the three other major airports in the state—all in oil country—numbers fell at Minot from 182,872 to 151,745, a 17 percent drop, from 106,945 to 68,0j21 at Williston, a 36.4 percent decline and at Dickinson, where they also had carrier troubles this past year, the number was down from 41,846 to 16,795, that nearly 60 percent drop.

"What we are seeing right now is kind of a combination of factors," Grand Forks Airport Executive Director Ryan Riesinger said Monday, pointing to low oil and ag commodity prices as well as a weak Canadian dollar.

North Dakota had nearly 1.05 million boardings in 2016, down from 2015's total of almost 1.18 million. That's also down from the state's record of 1.24 million set in 2014, when North Dakota's oil boom was in full swing.

This is the second year numbers have declined, a break in North Dakota's overall trend, when boardings increased each year from 2007 to 2014.

Grand Forks is indirectly affected by the oil bust, Riesinger said, adding the Canadian exchange rate likely affected traffic at the airport more than low oil prices. As of Monday, the Canadian dollar was worth 76 U.S. cents.

"We see as many as 40 percent of our passengers coming down from Canada," he said. "That number has decreased within the last year, year and a half."

There were two other smaller airports that fared better in 2016. Jamestown Regional Airport saw the highest spike of all airports, recording a 39 percent increase year-over-year from 7,996 to 11,123. Devils Lake Regional Airport also saw a similar jump, bringing in 32 percent more passengers last year at 6,290, compared to 4,760 in 2015.

Despite the troubles airports have faced because of depressed oil and commodity prices, all airports boarded more passengers last year than they did in pre-oil boom years. Kyle Wanner, executive director of the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission, said he is hopeful those declines will level out this year.

"The current year-over-year decline in passenger numbers does not diminish the fact that our long-term statewide airline passenger growth has been tremendous, especially once you consider the fact that passenger numbers are still 60 percent higher than they were 10 years ago in 2007," Wanner said in his statement.

It's hard to say what this year's numbers will bring for each airport, Riesinger said. Grand Forks will update its marketing campaign as it monitors boarding numbers.

"I hope some of those economic factors that I mentioned earlier ... turn back more to in our favor and to North Dakota's favor," he said. "As it stands right now for the time being, it looks like it is going to be more of the same, at least for the short term."