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Pawlenty, Northwest Airlines unveil airport expansion plan
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Gov. Tim Pawlenty stands next to a map showing the proposed expansion of the terminals at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The plan, costing $860 million, would increase the number of gates by some 40 percent. (MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Eagan-based Northwest Airlines Tuesday unveiled their vision for a much larger Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The plan shows an airport ready to handle 60 percent more travelers by the year 2020. Officials with the state and the airline say they intend to make the Twin Cities the dominant air travel hub in the Midwest.

Bloomington, Minn. — At first it seems like a funny time to be pitching airport expansion. The airline industry remains in a slump. Traffic is still recovering from the shock of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Minneapolis-St. Paul's shiny new Humphrey terminal loses $4 million a year because it doesn't get used enough as it is.

But state officials and Minnesota's dominant carrier, Northwest, see busy years ahead. By 2020, they want to be ready for 55 million passengers a year. Northwest seems likely to weather its current financial troubles and handle the majority of those travelers.

CEO Richard Anderson says being ready for that kind of traffic could position MSP as one of the most important airports in the country.

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Image Northwest CEO

"We need to start doing that work today, so that in 2012 or 2015 -- when the successors to all of us are here -- we'll have the assets as a community to be a leading international airport, and really the dominant airport for the Midwestern United States," Anderson says.

Chicago's O'Hare airport -- the current leader -- is so crowded federal officials stepped in this summer to demand a cutback in flights. Minnesota officials see an opportunity here.

According to the expansion plan, the small Humphrey Terminal would grow from eight gates to 20. The primary tenant, Sun Country, would remain, and would be joined by every domestic airline except Northwest, Delta, and Continental.

The reasoning is that those three carriers are in an alliance that allows joint booking and sharing of frequent flier miles. Combined, they handled 85 percent of MSP flights in 2003 -- most of those were Northwest.

They would remain at the much larger Lindbergh terminal, and 34 additional gates at Lindbergh would give them even more room to grow -- especially the small jet flights Northwest is keen on using to keep its costs down. The plan also includes a 400-room hotel and conference center attached to the Lindbergh Terminal.

This is win, win, win -- not only for the state and the economy, but for the airlines involved.
- Gov. Pawlenty

It all costs an estimated $860 million. No state or local tax money would be used. Along with federal grants, the cost would be borne for decades into the future by travelers and the airlines, through user fees and facilities charges.

Gov. Pawlenty predicts the additional economic activity from the airport could spin off as many as 40,000 new jobs in the state economy.

"This is win, win, win -- not only for the state and the economy, but for the airlines involved. And we are building facilities to accommodate those airlines as well as others that come along," says Pawlenty.

Airline competition is likely to surface as a concern as the plan moves forward. Twin Cities-based travel advocate Terry Trippler says he's all in favor of the plan -- as long as the expanded Humphrey terminal is built large enough.

"If everyone goes over to the Humphrey terminal, and they fill it up, how is there going to be room for a Southwest to come to town? Will there always be room for other airlines? That's the critical question that needs to be asked," says Trippler.

Northwest and the state insist the 20 gates at Humphrey will be enough. It's not clear all the airlines with existing Twin Cities service will move without objection. A spokesman for American Airlines says their early analysis shows it would be more expensive for American to fly out of Humphrey.

Sun Country Airlines -- already operating out of Humphrey -- is about to submit its own expansion plan to airport officials. CEO Jay Salmen says his main concern is crowding -- the terminal expansion must be big enough that Sun Country has room to grow, just like Northwest.

On the fringe of the news conference, one more voice raised an objection to the plan. The head of Northwest's mechanics union says the expansion wipes out seven existing maintenance hangars, which employ about 2,000 mechanics. The fate of these hangars and jobs is not clear.

These and other concerns will play out before the Metropolitan Airports Commission, which will start considering the plan on Monday.

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