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From Small Cities To The Sky

July 23, 2012, 10:00 PM by Erich Schaffhauser

From Small Cities To The Sky

With Delta changing things up in past months, a lot of small airports in the South Dakota are going through changes of their own. And that has airports fighting to keep its flyers around during transition.

Sitting on the east edge of town, Aberdeen's airport is boasting jet service for its passengers. In Huron and Watertown it's a round-trip ticket to Minneapolis for less than $200. In Pierre, you can bring a loved one to the airport, watch and wave goodbye until the plane door closes.

"We're all out there trying to get as many boarders as we possibly can. And it's a competitive market," Huron Airport Manager Larry Cooper said.

Huron Airport just added flights to Minneapolis along with its Denver flights. Watertown is advertising the new arrival of Great Lakes Airlines in its airport. That company is now the sole carrier for Pierre after Delta left at the beginning of the year.

"Right after Delta left, numbers declined compared to the previous year. Now we're starting to increase again," Pierre Airport Manager Mike Isaacs said.

Pierre offers five flights a day, some to Minneapolis and others to Denver. Jacque Smidt lives in Rosebud and used the Pierre airport for the first time this year to fly out of state for work.

"My school district set it up for me," Smidt said.

And she was happy with her first experience there starting from the beginning with free parking.

"It's a great perk," Smidt said. "And there's no line at the checkout."

Conveniences like that are things all these smaller airports are trying to convey to potential passengers. They're also trying to get the message across that you may not be saving that much by driving to a big airport if you're paying for gas, parking and wear and tear on your car.

It can be important for the smaller airports to do what they can to draw in passengers for survival sake.

Some of the smaller city airports are part of the Essential Air Service Program where the government subsidizes an airline for serving a smaller community. But in Huron, Cooper says he'd rather see future air service in his community tied to high demand rather than a government program.

"The House is dealing with a 2013 aviation bill and there's already been, I think, three attempts to kill the Essential Air Service Program," Cooper said.

And that's just one reason to work on attracting additional flyers. Airport managers say they're communicating with airlines, trying to get cheaper ticket prices to help with their efforts. That's something that brought Amanda Orona through Aberdeen for the first time.

"I flew to Fargo and Sioux Falls and it's always just what's cheaper and more convenient for somebody to pick me up," Orona said.

Some airports are seeing rider numbers up and others not. But they're all doing what they can to make the first true for them.

Pierre will have a new terminal soon. That's just one more selling point it can use as all the other small airports boast what they can too.

"Well, it's a lot smaller than most that I've been to but it's probably the most convenient because it is small and easy to get through," Orona said about the Aberdeen airport.

The airport managers we spoke with say there is some overlap in areas they draw passengers from. But they don't do much for advertising within another community where there's an airport.

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