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Small carriers, private pilots prepare to shove back against Northwest
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Reliever airports are designed to take the business, corporate and personal traffic off MSP. "If you raised the price at reliever airports, we might as well move back to MSP," says Michael Hayes, president of Anoka Air Charters. (MPR Photo/Elizabeth Stawicki)
Some general aviation pilots are angry over a recent Northwest Airlines action to hike tenant rates at Twin Cities so-called reliever airports. Northwest sued the Metropolitan Airports Commission Dec. 13, alleging the MAC subsidizes the six small airports too generously and it's time the reliever airports pay their own way. But some tenants say reliever airports were never meant to be self-sufficient.

Blaine, Minn. — There was a time during the last century when commercial airlines shared the Minneapolis-St Paul airport with myriad kinds of aircraft, including small, single-engine prop planes. But as aviation took off commercially, the main airport became crowded. So from the mid 1940s to early '50s, the state built or aquired six regional airports around the Twin Cities to relieve MSP of slower and smaller aircraft.

Minnesota's reliever airport system is the third-largest reliever airports system in the U.S. The six Minnesota general aviation airports -- Airlake, Anoka Blaine, Crystal, Flying Cloud, Lake Elmo, and St. Paul Downtown --serve more than 1,900 based aircraft and had some 822,000 operations a year.

The airports house tenants ranging from weekend putterers, who tinker in small hangars, to aviation businesses such as Anoka Air Charter at the largest of the Twin Cities reliever airports, Anoka County Blaine.

Charter president Michael Hayes says it's unreasonable for Northwest to assert that reliever airport tenants pay the full cost. He says reliever tenants do the commercial airlines a service by flying out of the smaller airports when they have the right to fly out of MSP.

"Reliever airports are designed to take the business, corporate and personal traffic off MSP. If you raised the price at reliever airports, we might as well move back to MSP," says Hayes.

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Image Cutting cost? Or competition?

Another business owner at Anoka, Darrell Buldoc, agrees. Buldoc owns and operates an aircraft engine rebuilding business at Anoka County Blaine airport. He says Northwest forgets that it shares airspace and that other fliers have a right to good quality airports outside the Twin Cities.

"They're becoming kind of a big bully around here," he says. "They're going back on the way it was supposed to be designed and set up years ago. If they want us to come back to the international airport, we'll be more than happy to do so. But it's going to have a big effect on operations. We have just as much right to that airspace as they do."

The Metropolitan Airport Commission derives its revenue from fees paid by airport businesses, customers and airlines.

The MAC says, in general, reliever airport tenants pay about 30 percent of the total cost to operate reliever airports. Most of the MAC's budget comes from Northwest Airlines.

"We're looking at ways to reduce pennies," says Bob Benner of Northwest. "It strikes us that when we're cutting costs to the point where we have to lay good people off. It doesn't make even a little bit of sense, particularly when it's clear that their (MAC's) current financial relationship with the relievers is let's say overly generous."

Benner says the Metropolitan Airports Commission has acted like Santa Claus to the reliever airports.

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Image An inevitable increase.

Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association President Phil Boyer told Gov.-elect Tim Pawlenty in a recent letter that the MAC was under pressure from the airline industry to reduce spending at the GA airports to make up for ailing airline profits and operating deficits. The airlines, according to Boyer, view traffic at the GA airports as "competition."

"The majority of the air traffic at these airports are private individuals who operate aircraft for their own personal business or pleasure, or corporations that own or lease aircraft for their executive travel," Boyer told Pawlenty. "AOPA urges you to not allow the interests of the commercial air service providers to disrupt the safe operation of these general aviation airports."

The manager of the Anoka County Blaine airport, Jack Eberlein, says tenants are paying more than they used to; their rates are rising and will continue to rise for the next several years.

"In the long run (reliever airports) save money for people who have to use the Minneapolis airport for commercial purposes. We've got to provide a place for these people; it's a first-come, first-served basis. Any pilot that flies off this airport can fly in to the Minneapolis airport. We're trying to provide an incentive to keep them from the Minneapolis airport," says Eberlein.

Northwest has said reliever tenants could pay more than what it terms "bargain basement rates." It argues the savings could be directed at reducing its and other commercial airlines' charges at a time when the industry as a whole is in trouble. Northwest laid off 8,000 people in the past 18 months and two of the six major airlines are in bankruptcy.

There's also the question of whether the commission should subsidize what some might call a rich person's hobby --flying and owning an airplane.

"There's a lot of people that have prioritized flying instead of having a lake cabin, instead of a boat, instead of traveling to other countries," says Darrell Buldoc. "All they want to do is fly their airplanes. There's a lot of people out here like that. They pay a lot of taxes on land they don't own."

One of those is Ed Erickson, a retired commercial airline pilot who's flown for Northwest, Republic and North Central. Erickson has several airplanes in his hangar.

"It's like schools or anything else; they're there for the public good. I don't have any kids in school; haven't had for years, but we pay school tax. Whether you fly an airplane or not, this airport does a lot of good for you. Let's say you have an auto accident or you need a heart transplant. How do you think those things get moved? Airplanes that do it at (reliever) airports around the country. That's how airmail gets moved; it doesn't all go on the airline," Erickson says.

Erickson says he and other private pilots are planning to show Northwest what reliever airports are for. He says they're planning to saturate the airspace around MSP with small planes.

"We're going to have a fly-in at the Minneapolis airport and get 300 airplanes to show up on a Friday afternoon and get in the airspace and say, 'We want to come in and land. We're going to buy fuel.' All these (Northwest Airlines') airplanes coming from Seattle and San Francisco, they got to get in line just like anybody else. And when they start having to go to their alternates because they can't wait for all this traffic to get out of their way, they're going to wonder why this is costing (them) money," he says.

Erickson says his group would notify authorities, including air traffic control, before they'd stage their fly-in. He says they have not yet set a date but are in the organizing stages.

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