While the sky might be the limit, the Rochester International Airport needs to continue to grow to fuel growth of the city, Mayo Clinic and area businesses.
That was at the heart of the message presented during the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce's Community Matters event hosted in the Mayo Clinic Air Ambulance hangar.
"We wanted to uncover a little more of ... what goes on here to increase the understanding in the community of the importance of it," Chamber President Kathleen Harrington said in introducing the event.
The airport has seen a major boost in passenger traffic since 2017, when Mayo Clinic changed its internal policies to require employees traveling for work to use Rochester airport. Mayo Clinic manages the airport, while the City of Rochester owns it.
In 2018, RST recorded its highest passenger numbers ever, at 371,615. That pushed Rochester's airport past Duluth as the state's second-busiest air hub behind Minneapolis.
That marked a massive jump from 290,834 passengers in 2017 and 229,062 passengers in 2016.
Passenger growth and the addition of new flights have helped bring down the cost of flying out of Rochester, making it more competitive with Minneapolis.
However, RST Executive Director John Reed told the crowd of business leaders, raising his voice to be heard over the roar of an airplane engine, that passenger usage is "essentially flat" for 2019.
"As of September, we're down half a point ... I'd guess that Mayo Clinic's travel is just down every so slightly," he said.
Reed said he and his staff continue to work to add more airlines and more flights, particularly connecting to western hubs like Denver and Dallas.
Reed and a panel of speakers emphasized how the airport's importance reaches beyond just transporting commercial passengers to Mayo Clinic.
Paul Drucker, the senior director of Mayo Clinic's Ambulance Service, said that Rochester is one of the busiest airports for air ambulance activity, with Mayo Clinic flying patients in and out.
As of 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration considers Mayo Clinic as its own airline. Mayo Clinic's hangar is busy, but Drucker added that with more hangar space, it could be even more busy.
Hangar space would open the door to moving the base of Mayo Clinic's helicopter operations from the helipad atop Saint Marys Hospital to the airport. That's just a long-term dream at this point.
Tom Griffin, who handles logistics for Mayo Clinic Laboratories, told the audience that the airport is essential to the medical testing business. Flights bring about 35,000 medical samples to be tested every day.
RST saw 22.4 million pieces of cargo come through the airport in 2018.
He said that Mayo Clinic would like to see the for-profit business continue to grow, which would mean more carriers, like FedEx, and more capacity for cargo.
Reed said upgrading and expanding the airport could boost Rochester and the region's economy.
State lawmakers Carla Nelson and David Senjem, said they would be taking all of this into account when they work on the state bonding bill in the next legislative session, which starts in February.