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Travelers grab their luggage after arriving at Rochester International Airport in 2018. (Andrew Link / alink@postbulletin.com)

After two years of passenger growth plateaued in 2019, the Rochester International Airport is looking west in 2020, fueled by a new $750,000 federal grant.

On Thursday, the airport was awarded a $750,000 Small Community Air Service Development Program grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation for a "revenue guarantee and marketing program to attract new service to Denver, Co., on United Airlines."

"Westward movement is the biggest desire for the community as a whole," said Airport Director John Reed.

Mayo Clinic founded Rochester’s first airport in 1928. While the city of Rochester owns the airport, Mayo Clinic is contracted to manage it via its Rochester Airport Co. firm. In 2018, Mayo Clinic reported $3.76 million in income from the airport company.

This grant comes after the Rochester airport tallied passenger numbers for 2019 that were "essentially even" for the airlines Delta, American and United. A slight drop in private charters, such as flights chartered by casinos, made the overall passenger number decrease by 0.04 percent to 370,201 from the record 371,615 passengers in 2018. 

That followed two years of huge passenger growth. In 2017, Mayo Clinic changed its internal policies to require employees traveling for work to use the Rochester airport. 

"That's a normal reaction," said Reed. "We didn't have any introduction of new service."

"The average load factor of passengers per flight was at 80 percent full, or slightly above 80 percent," said Airport Communications Manager Tiana O’Connor. "That's the industry average."

Adding a flight to a western hub could drive those numbers back up.

O’Connor clarified that while the grant specifically mentioned Denver and United Airlines, the grant money could be used for a flight with another airline or another western airport. The mention of Denver and United came from a business plan that the Rochester airport filed with the application for the grant.

She also explained how the grant money will be used to encourage an airline to add a western flight to Rochester's offerings. Airlines typically ask an airport to guarantee revenue for the first year of a new flight before introducing it. If the flight generates enough revenue to match the goals, then the grant money can be used to recruit other flights. This latest grant will fund such a deal for the Rochester airport.

While the commercial passenger numbers for 2019 did not move much for the airport, private aviation and cargo flights were up.

Private aviation, which includes flight training, air ambulances and private corporate aircraft, spiked from 43,054 takeoffs and landings in 2018 to 49,734 in 2019.

Reed attributed that 15 percent increase to the new two-year Rochester Community and Technical College pilot training program that launched with Rochester's Great Planes Aviation in the fall.

"Those kids have been flying those wings off the planes," he said. "It's exciting to see these young people get out and get their first taste of aviation."

The majority of the first students have already earned their pilot licenses, said O’Connor.

On the cargo portion of the picture, the pounds of cargo that passed through the airport was also up over 2018. A total 49,734 pounds of cargo were transported in 2019 compared to 43,054 the year before.

That increase is mostly attributed to growth in the medical samples being transported to and from Mayo Medical Labs by FedEx planes, according to Reed. He added that increase if even more impressive, after factoring in that Amazon and FedEx parted ways last year.

"That's a really significant number," he said."

When the cargo number isn't specifically divided up, Reed said the rough estimate is that one-third of the Rochester air cargo is for Mayo Medical Labs, one-third is generally for Mayo Clinic and one-third is for the community.

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