It wasn’t long ago that North Dakota was considered a flyover state. Now the booming shale-oil business has made the state’s airfields bright spots in an era of flagging small airports. Delta Air Lines (DAL) and United Continental Holdings (UAL) have added flights in Williston, Minot, and Dickinson to shuttle workers for the likes of Whiting Oil & Gas (WLL) and Baker Hughes (BHI) to the Bakken fields in the western corner of the state. Scoring a seat is often difficult. And getting to the middle of nowhere isn’t cheap: A round-trip Delta flight from New York to Minot on April 22 cost $1,284, double the cost of a New York-Los Angeles round trip.
“Who would have imagined that North Dakota would be the hotbed of commercial aviation?” says William Swelbar, an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s International Center for Air Transportation. “But it has everything to do with what’s going on with the economy and underlying demographics there.”
Williston, Dickinson, and Minot form a triangle in the northern Great Plains. The closest big city is Billings, Mont., which is 317 miles from Williston. Before the oil boom, the area was perhaps best known for its harsh climate and the Badlands, the rugged rock formations where President Theodore Roosevelt hunted bison. Then came fracking.
The explosive growth of the industry has fueled the need to continually move around workers who drill, drive, process, support, or otherwise contribute to the extraction of oil from the Bakken formation, a shale bed two miles down that stretches from North Dakota to Montana to Saskatchewan. North Dakota’s economy grew 13 percent in 2012, the fastest rate in the U.S. The petroleum industry employed 40,856 people in the state in 2011, up from 5,051 in 2005, a year before the expansion of the oil fields began.
Airplane boardings in North Dakota almost doubled in the past decade to 1.1 million in 2013. By contrast, total U.S. enplanements—yes, that’s a word—rose 11.2 percent from 2002 to 2012. An MIT study showed that from 2007 to 2012 U.S. carriers cut a fifth of scheduled flights at small airports. Some of the smallest, including Oxnard, Calif., and Bullhead City, Ariz., lost all commercial service.
Photographs by Alexandra Hootnick for Bloomberg Businessweek
Departing passengers at Sloulin Field International Airport in Williston surged 130 percent from the previous year, to 96,000 in the 12 months through January. That’s five times the 2012 population of the city. Boardings at Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport in Dickinson, population 19,697, grew 60 percent, to 37,000 last year. Since 2009, Minot’s passenger boardings have almost tripled to 219,000—more than five times its population.
Minot International caters to oilfield workers who fly in for a few weeks of work and then fly out again for a week off. The airport, with only two gates, has gone from three daily flights in 2009 to as many as 15 a day, with an average of 85 percent of the seats filled, says Andy Solsvig, the airport’s director. The industry average is 82.1 percent. Some of the flights out of Minot include charters for Halliburton (HAL) and Hess (HES) employees, Solsvig says.
Stanton Dodson, executive chairman of Citadel Energy Partners, which provides water services in oil fields, says North Dakota could use even more flights. He’s traveled from Los Angeles to his company’s office in Watford City, N.D., every other week for the past three years, usually flying into Minot or Dickinson and occasionally into Williston. Every flight is packed, he says. Trips to Williston are almost always sold out, and the limited number of flights to Dickinson makes it difficult to rebook when necessary. Minot, with more flights, is Dodson’s backup. “If you get stuck on the roads because of weather or truck traffic, which happens often, then you’ve got another option” at Minot, he says.
Delta began service to Minot when it bought Northwest Airlines in 2008. It added Williston in 2012 and Dickinson in 2013. Delta flies twice daily from Williston and Dickinson and six times from Minot. United added Minot to its regional jet service in 2010 and expanded into Williston and Dickinson in 2012 and 2013, respectively, with nonstop flights to Denver. Minot’s diminutive terminal has to deal with passenger volume it wasn’t designed to handle, Solsvig says. “Our facilities are tapped out. On occasion, if we have two or three flights that are really close together, it’s standing-room only,” he says. So Minot is constructing a $45 million, 115,000-square-foot terminal with six gates.
Williston, which saw enplanements surge to 96,000 in 2013 after years of averaging 6,000, may need an entirely new airport costing $220 million. The airport is so stretched with only one gate that it uses a trailer to cope with extra passengers in the holding area. Says Kyle Wanner, interim director of the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission: “We have the challenges associated with that growth, but overall, aviation has never been better in the state of North Dakota.”