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The first new US airport since 2011 is in North Dakota's oil country

Oct. 10, 2019
6 min read
The first new US airport since 2011 is in North Dakota's oil country
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Seldom does an entirely new commercial airport -- runways, terminal and all -- open. It's even rarer for one to do so in the U.S.

Williston Basin International Airport (XWA) in North Dakota became the fourth new commercial airport to open in the U.S. in the past decade today. It welcomed Delta Air Lines flight DL4007 from Minneapolis/St. Paul (MSP) at 11:34am local time.

United Airlines flight UA4643 from Denver (DEN) was due to be the first flight with a scheduled arrival of 10:50am local time. However, weather in Denver delayed the flight by at least three hours and 35 minutes, according to the United website.

Williston Basin, located nearly 14 miles from Williston City Hall in the northwest corner of North Dakota, will replace the Sloulin Field International Airport (ISN). Sloulin has served Williston for nearly three-quarters of a century but faces capacity constraints owing to its in-town location and dated facilities.

Photo courtesy of Williston Basin International Airport.
The new passenger terminal at Williston Basin airport. (Photo courtesy of Williston Basin International Airport)

“The old airport was not built for the weight loads coming in and out of there,” Don Cardon, a developer overseeing the construction of Williston Basin and redevelopment of Sloulin Field, told Forbes. That issue, plus the limited size of the existing airport that is mostly surrounded by city, prompted the decision to build a new facility.

The Williston Basin airport website cites the steep slope of Sloulin's 6,650-foot runway, and pavement that cannot support the weight of modern aircraft, as among reasons for building the new facility. The new airport will feature a 7,500-foot main runway and a 108,000-square-foot terminal with jetways for three aircraft.

Photo courtesy of Williston Basin International Airport.
Williston Basin will initially feature a 7,500ft main runway. (Photo courtesy of Williston Basin International Airport)

Williston Basin joins a select group of new U.S. airports. While many are upgrading facilities or building new terminals, the same cannot be said for entirely new airports. A greenfield facility requires a significant amount of land for runways and terminals — something that is difficult to come by in most urban areas — plus support from surrounding communities that would be impacted by new flight patterns.

St. George Regional Airport (SGU) in Utah was the last new facility in the U.S. when it opened in January 2011. Prior to that, the list is short: Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP) on the Florida Panhandle opened in 2010, Branson (BBG) in Missouri opened in 2009, Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA) opened in 1998, and Denver International Airport opened in 1995. This list does not include terminals built at existing general aviation airports, like Paine Field (PAE) north of Seattle, or former air force bases, like Austin (AUS).

Spokespeople for Delta and United both said the airlines are "looking forward" to moving operations to Williston Basin. Neither would comment on whether they have growth plans for the new airport.

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Photo courtesy of Williston Basin International Airport.
The interior of the passenger terminal at the new Williston Basin airport. (Photo courtesy of Williston Basin International Airport)

Schedules show Williston's decision to build a new airport initially will land it some larger aircraft, but not necessarily more seats. While both Delta and United exclusively flew 50-seat regional jets to Sloulin —Bombardier CRJ200s and Embraer ERJ-145s, respectively — larger jets will begin flying to Williston Basin this month, according to Diio by Cirium schedule data.

Delta will upgauge one of its two daily flights between Minneapolis/St. Paul (MSP) and Williston to a 69-seat Bombardier CRJ700 starting Nov. 4, Diio shows. The SkyTeam Alliance carrier will upgauge that flight again on Dec. 20 to a 76-seat Bombardier CRJ900, while maintaining its twice-daily schedule.

United will replace two of its four daily flights between Denver and Williston with a single flight operated by a 76-seat Embraer 175 beginning Oct. 28, according to Diio. However, the change will result in a net reduction of 24 seats daily to the new airport.

Williston Basin airport's future is far from certain. The region grew rapidly with North Dakota's energy boom that saw the state's oil production nearly quadruple to about 430 million barrels of crude annually from 2010 to 2015, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data. Production cooled off in 2016 and 2017, but rose to a new peak of more than 460 million barrels of crude last year.

Elevated oil prices, whether from increased demand or production issues in the Persian Gulf, support the further growth of North Dakota's crude industry. Much of the state's oil industry uses capital-intensive fracking techniques to extract the resource from shale.

Delta and United jets at Sloulin Field in Williston, North Dakota. (Photo courtesy of the City of Williston)
Delta and United jets at Sloulin Field in Williston, North Dakota. (Photo courtesy of the City of Williston)

Williston saw passenger traffic at Sloulin Field spike during the last period of elevated oil prices, which EIA data shows was from roughly 2011 to 2014. Passenger numbers rose more than seven-fold to a peak of 224,902 in 2014 from 2010, according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics via Diio.

Traffic through Williston fell to 137,633 passengers in 2017, but began rising again to 146,588 last year, the DOT data shows. Passenger numbers were already up 20% year-over-year during the first six months of 2019.

Correction: The story has been updated to state that the airport serving St. George, Utah, was the nation’s previously most recent airport to be built entirely new. It opened in 2011. The original version of this story had the wrong year for when the nation's last entirely new airport was built.

Featured image by Photo courtesy of Williston Basin International Airport.

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