HURON — A year after Huron lost its commercial flights to Denver and Minneapolis, they’re not likely to return any time soon.
But although it’s on a smaller scale, the airport remains a hub of its own.
“We’re still alive and well out here, and busy,” said Airport Manager Larry Cooper.
Nearly two dozen businesses, air ambulance services, physician specialists, government agencies and other operations are regular airport customers, he said. Some, like NorthWestern Energy, are in and out of here as many as four times a day.
“There are people that use the airport all the time, and the reason people don’t see it usually is because the airplanes come and go, and if you don’t hear them or you don’t happen to watch the sky at the time they come by you don’t see it happening,” Cooper said.
Also, there are new enterprises now flying in and out of Huron that are known as fractional ownership companies. Netjets Aviation and Jet Solutions are two that land and take off here regularly.
Business travelers who need to be somewhere on short notice are often the ones who make use of fractional ownership jets. Businesses pay a monthly maintenance fee and an annual contract fee and in return can request a plane to fly people with just a few hours’ notice.
“You see these fractional owners come in here any time business people are coming to Huron to do something,” Cooper said.
Other regular customers are familiar names to local residents.
They include Coborn’s, Jack Links, True North Steel, UPS, Pioneer Hybrids, Basin Electric, Larson Cable Trailers and Western Area Power Administration.
Sanford air ambulances are here an average of once a day, and Avera air ambulances fly to Huron weekly. Both services use multiple aircraft.
Specialty operations which use the airport are aerial applicators like Wilber Ellis and North Central Farmers Elevator. Predator control aircraft, hunters and pipeline inspectors also fly in and out of Huron.
While commercial air service is no longer an option, people from Huron and the surrounding area are still flying, primarily out of Sioux Falls, Cooper said.
When Dakota Pork was open two decades ago and the city enjoyed good air service, Huron had the ability to board between 500 and 1,000 people a month, he said.
“But the continuous bad service (more recently) from Great Lakes is what really hurt us, because people just got fed up with it and wouldn’t fly,” he said.
The airline was flying to Huron through the essential air service program.
“As it sits right now, we lost it because we exceeded the per passenger subsidy,” Cooper said. “In reality, what the rule is, if you exceed $1,000 per passenger subsidy you’re out of the program.”
When Great Lakes went to a nine-passenger aircraft, the chances of Huron being able to board enough passengers to stay under $1,000 were “nil and none,” he said.
Cooper thinks that at some point Huron might be able to get air service back if a deal could be worked out where the city offers the airline a free hangar so the plane that is here each night is not left out in the weather, in winter and summer. It’s bad business to leave a 50-passenger jet outside in extreme cold in winter and subject to hail damage in the summer, he said.
A free hangar and a possible break on fuel could be incentives for an airline until it can sustain the route without subsidies just on boardings, Cooper said.
But that may be down the road, because right now he doesn’t think Huron has a large enough population or economic base for it to work.
Cooper fields as many as four calls a week from people asking which airline serves Huron, and what a ticket costs. A few days ago, people from California called because they want to fly here to hunt pheasants.
“And you have to tell them, ‘sorry, we don’t have an airline anymore,’” he said.
It’s a shame that people from Huron and the area have not been able to fly in and out of here for a year now, he said.
But the impact on the airport itself has been minimal.
“All that did was change the fact of two airplanes a day coming and going from Huron,” Cooper said.
“But at the same time, that wasn’t our only customer,” he said. “There are a lot of people that use the airport.”