The city’s airport has good profit margins and good load factors, according to Williston’s consultant from Trillion Aviation Mike Bown.
That is good from the standpoint that existing air service isn’t likely to leave or shrink, despite shrinkage in the airline industry as a whole. But it also means there’s nothing — at least on the usual surface of things — to suggest to airlines that it would be profitable to substantially increase flights into and out of Williston.
Airline decisions are primarily data driven, Bown said, and the data he’s looking at so far just doesn’t suggest adding capacity.
But there are a couple of peculiarities in the Williston market that could help the city overcome its data. These tie back to the oil industry and to operational problems at Sloulin International Airport.
Sloulin’s runways could not accommodate heavier planes, and that has prompted a number of denied boardings in recent years. It’s a contributing factor to higher than average leakage statistics, which refers to people buying a ticket to fly out from somewhere other than their own city’s airport.
“Denied boardings tied to operational issues of the runway is not something you generally see,” Bown said.
In fact, it’s the first time Bown has seen that in a 30-plus-year career.
Leakage in Williston is 31 percent, which is surprisingly high for a market like Williston, Bown said. Usually leakage that high only occurs when a community is within driving distance of a major airport hub, like Chicago.
These things suggest that load factors might not accurately represent where Williston’s airline capacity should be to meet existing demand. If that pans out, Bown said it might help the city successfully make a case for more flights.
Commissioner Brad Bekkedahl, speaking about the matter at a recent city commission meeting, pointed out that many oil companies have preferred to pay substantially more money to charter their own plane than book flights through Sloulin.
“They control the plane and the passenger load so they don’t get bumps,” he said.
That way, critically important personnel needed on a job site don’t get stranded when the airport has to bump passengers from flights due to weight restrictions on the runway.
Bown said that warrants further exploration, and could be game-changing, if enough oil companies are willing to play ball.
To collect more data about that, AE2S is circulating a survey to employees of Williston-area oil companies via the Williston Basin Chapter of the American Petroleum Institute.
The survey asks what type of oil and gas company the employee works at, and whether that company is flying employees to and from corporate or other offices into and out of Williston on a regular or occasional basis, or not at all. There’s also an I don’t know option.
Later questions ask the type of air travel, as well as the company’s budget for air travel annually, and whether the companies fly into other nearby cities instead of Williston and, if so, why.
Lastly, the survey asks the employee to highlight which route would benefit their company the most, if one were to be added.
Many in the area might be hoping that answer would be Houston, but others might also be rooting for Chicago or Denver.
Bown, however, said that while he is seeing a general rise in economic activity, unless it kicks up to what occurred under $100 oil, he doesn’t see airlines adding any of those destinations as direct flights any time soon.
Still, the answers to the survey will be useful to his efforts, he said. In addition to that, he plans to meet with oil industry and travel executives to develop data and information about the industry’s air travel needs ahead of meetings he will have with airlines to discuss the potential for expanding service in Williston.
It’s going to be a challenging sell, he suggested.
“The (airline) industry’s capacity is constrained,” Bown said. “Airlines are not growing. That is what we are chasing, an industry that has not been increasing seat capacity.”