Rochester can, and will, become high yield regional airport

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Steven McNeill

Rochester International Airport, like all regional non-hub airports in the U.S., is facing difficult challenges in the face of changing air service dynamics and related economic and market trends.

Most recently, pilot shortages are becoming a very real phenomenon. Between now and 2022, experts estimate American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines will retire more than 16,000 pilots, and the pipeline to refill that shortage is grossly insufficient. The large airlines will try to fill their pilot needs by hiring from the regional airlines. This will put pressure on airlines that mainly serve regional airports, resulting in fewer flights for those airports.

In addition, smaller 50-seat commuter jets are being taken out of service in favor of 70-seat or larger jets. Currently, three quarters of flights out of Rochester are 50-seat commuter jets. Of the 357 non-hub airports nationally, only an estimated 40 percent have sufficient passenger volume to support these larger, more-efficient commuter planes. Rochester airport passenger volumes are currently below that threshold.

Rochester has a clear call to action. Long term, the airport will not survive as a 50-seat regional jet service airport. We must grow our passenger volume to support 70- and 90-seat regional jet service to major hubs outside of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to ensure travelers within our region, and more importantly, those who want to come to Rochester, will have access to convenient, local air service. We must — and will — become a high volume, high yield regional airport.

The good news is the opportunity and the market is real for the Rochester International Airport to thrive.


The Rochester International Airport Company has a plan. In late 2013, we sought input from multiple stakeholders including area consumer groups, the aviation community, as well as multiple airlines and air service consultants to map out the best course of action for the airport. One profound and telling statistic: Rochester and the surrounding six-county area supports 1.75 million annual passengers (origin and destination information combined), of which Rochester holds a meager 12 percent market share. This means just 12 percent of air travelers in our market fly in and out of Rochester, while 88 percent of travelers in our area drive to a neighboring airport, most often the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

A suitable stretch goal, the type that generates innovative ideas and solutions, would be to double that share. We have the market; we need to improve our market capture. We must do this with things we can control — an improved end-to-end customer experience and improved facilities, as well as trying to secure improved frequency and reliability of flights.

While the Rochester International Airport has run smoothly and consistently for decades, we must and will do better. Our plan to improve includes strategic objectives in five areas:

1. The airport will be financially self-sufficient and remain cost competitive.

2. Airport operations will be organized and aligned to improve efficiency and service.

3. Recruitment and retention of new and existing air service is our highest priority.

4. Improve infrastructure, process and technology at the airport in an aggressive yet fiscally responsible manner. Air terminal modernization is a major part of this objective.

5. Strengthen customer and community engagement. We need to re-establish pride of ownership in RST as a critical and prized asset of Rochester and southeastern Minnesota.


To retain and recruit new air service, it is imperative to first collaborate with existing carriers who have given us years of dedicated service at Rochester International Airport.

Delta has shown interest in trying out new direct routes such as Atlanta and Detroit. More than $1 million in public and private funds have been contributed to mitigate Delta's financial risk for the Atlanta route for one year. The latest Atlanta data is encouraging with an 83 percent load factor in February.

Moreover, we are in active discussions with other carriers regarding new destinations, but it is essential we invest maximum effort in demonstrating Atlanta to be a sustainable destination.

Many good things are happening. We have the strong commitment of the city of Rochester, Mayo Clinic and many other community and business leaders. John Reed, our new airport executive director, is a highly skilled and proven expert in the areas of strategy development and operational execution.

Now the Rochester International Airport needs you. We need and welcome your thoughts on our vision for the future and your patronage as a traveler. Rochester is a national and international destination. A strong and thriving airport is an essential part of our community's future.

Steven McNeill is president of the Rochester Airport Co.. Rochester International Airport is owned by the city of Rochester and operated by the Rochester Airport Co, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mayo Clinic.

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