This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The Watertown Regional Airport Manager is Todd Syhre.
WATERTOWN, S.D. (KELO) — It’s early afternoon on a Thursday and the Watertown Regional Airport’s parking lot is almost full.
“We actually had to blow an extra spot, for people to park beyond the parking lot in the grass,” Watertown Regional Airport Manager Todd Syhre said.
This comes as the small airport sees record growth and is full-steam ahead for a new multi-million dollar terminal which could open as soon as next year.
✈ KELOLAND News got a first look at early renderings of the airport. Scroll down to see what the airport could look like.
This week, Watertown’s city council approved contracts related to planning the new terminal. It’s estimated to cost more than $20 million, but much of that is expected to be funded by federal grants.
The puzzle pieces
Watertown’s growth is being attributed to several puzzle pieces all coming together in 2019, Syhre said.
Before last year, Watertown’s airport was bleak at times, with gaps in commercial air service. The airport opened in 1917 and was used by the United States Army Air Forces in World War II.
Commercial air service has been on and off over the last decade, with United Airlines returning in 2019. United had actually serviced the airport in the 1930s.
The terminal was last renovated in 2009 to accommodate an expanded Transporation Security Administration screening area.
It is also home to some history. The 50th state for former President Barack Obama to visit was South Dakota when he landed at the airport in a modified Air Force One in 2015.
Puzzle Piece 1: Stability
Piece number one: Service at the airport became stable one year ago.
In early 2019, California Pacific shut down service in South Dakota abruptly, leaving some passengers stranded. A few months later SkyWest, operating as United Express, earned the Essential Air Service contract to provide more reliable service for the airport.
United now flies routes from Pierre and Watertown to Denver and Watertown to Chicago.
There are two types of airports in South Dakota: the regional airports and Essential Air Service airports.
Sioux Falls and Rapid City are the regional airports.
Aberdeen, Watertown and Pierre are regional airports with “Essential Air Service.”
EAS is a federal government program where the U.S. Department of Transportation pays airlines to maintain service at 115 rural airports in the lower 48 states.
The federal government awarded contracts for more than $64 million in South Dakota to keep planes flying over the last decade.
The EAS remains a controversial program. President Donald Trump proposed to cut it during one of his early budget proposals. That plan was scrapped and it is set to continue until at least 2023.
The SkyWest contract goes until April 2021.
But federal subsidies might not be flowing into Watertown for much longer.
“We’re hoping to expand enough to where we don’t even need Essential Air Service anymore,” Syhre said. “We want to make these routes profitable for the airlines and we want them to be here other than just for the Essential Air Service contract.”
Puzzle Piece 2: Flight costs
The second piece is the pricing. Watertown is cheaper to fly out of than many other airports in the region (in part, because of the subsidies).
“Ticket prices are very much in line with where they should be around here,” Syhre said.
EAS has contributed to lower costs in Watertown and Pierre, according to early numbers for 2019.
For the past decade, most ticket costs in South Dakota have been above the national average, but they have fallen, according to the Bureau of Transporation Statistics data.
Puzzle Piece 4: Sky amenities and destinations
Another piece of the puzzle is the convenience of United and the added destination of Chicago. Passengers are now able to check their bags through to their destination, an amenity that is new thanks to the United/SkyWest contract.
“Just giving customers and the city of Watertown and surrounding areas opportunities to go east and west out of Watertown,” Syhre said.
Syhre is hoping more destinations could come with the growth.
“The more (the routes) get used, the more apt SkyWest/United would be to add more flights here,” he said.
Puzzle Piece 4: Ground amenities
It’s not just amenities by the airline, but on the ground too. The airport is proud of its free parking and Syhre said that won’t change with the new terminal.
In September, the airport welcomed Budget Car Rental. Airport officials believe this is key to getting businesses to fly passengers into an airport with limited public transit.
With all of the growth, the airport, city and the Federal Aviation Administration believe it’s time to expand.
Early plans for the new terminal include moving to a new location outside of the private aviation section of the airport.
It will also likely include a restaurant accessible by passengers before and after security, an upgrade from the current vending machine in the terminal. Syhre said that will bring another revenue stream to the airport, and possibly attract local workers and pilots landing to refuel. More permanent car rental facilities will be built, which also provide revenue to the airport.
The design will include two gates and a jetway to board the plane. There’s also increased space for TSA. The federal rules have changed since the Watertown Airport was built. The amount of space per passenger is higher, meaning the new terminal will be larger – likely 2.5 times the size of the current building.
Built-in flexibility to expand the boarding area, as more flights are departing, will help further alleviate space issues.
The current facility will be torn down, and the land will be likely sold for private air space.
Syhre said he is in contact weekly with the FAA to get plans figured out. In addition, a local committee is working on the design of the airport with professionals. That process, scheduled for the next few months, will help identify how much exactly the federal government will pay for.
✈ KELOLAND’s Kelli Volk talked with passengers flying out of Watertown Regional Airport and the city’s mayor about the planned expansion. Watch for that story Thursday on KELOLAND News at 10.