Airmen say it’s no surprise. A decade after the oil boom began, North Dakota has invested in airports across the state, as well as sustained strong flight training programs like that of the University of North Dakota. Now all of those investments in the industry are taking off.
“Getting to Williston from Grand Forks is not easy,” said Kim Kenville, professor of AND aviation this month. The same goes for Dickinson or Fargo or wherever the business travelers in the region want to be.
In North Dakota, car journeys can be long and there is no domestic airline. That got companies to do it themselves.
“Many North Dakota companies see the value in getting a foothold across the state in a short amount of time,” added Kenville. “It’s just the only way to do it.”
This economical pressure – combined with numerous opportunities for other aviators – makes a big difference. The state’s aviation industry saw aircraft transactions jump 30% from 118 to 153 in 2019, according to the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission, followed by another strong performance in 2020 with 148 aircraft.
These two-year transactions are almost as many as the previous three years combined.
“First and foremost, I would say that the North Dakota aviation attitude and culture is the main driver behind this,” said Kyle Wanner, chief of the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission.
The same increase in aircraft transactions can be seen in the NDAC data on excise duty surveys. This is the 5% tax levied on these transactions or 3% on harvest dusters. For the 2020-2021 biennium ending this summer, that tax revenue is nearly $ 5.5 million. That is millions more than the average for the collections of the last ten years.
The surge in aviation is due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which brutally affected commercial air travel and manufacturers. The General Aviation Manufacturers Association describes 2020 as something of a disaster for manufacturers.
“The value of aircraft deliveries fell 16% compared to 2019. Every segment of the industry suffered losses,” said a GAMA report for 2020, “some more than others.”
But North Dakota transaction numbers persisted. Wanner points out that low interest rates were a good time to buy and that many buyers may have traded in or bought used aircraft.
That is, while aircraft manufacturers suffered, aircraft buyers fared far better. The Financial Post reports that used business jets saw global sales jump 5.2% in 2020. However, new purchases fell by around 20%.
Duluth-based company Cirrus Aircraft, which has a manufacturing facility in Grand Forks, was also not spared, cutting its workforce by about 100 employees during the pandemic before looking to grow again in the spring. Ben Kowalski, the company’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, said production had been dampened by growls in the supply chain.
“Building an airplane requires some parts, and we need all of them to build the airplane. You can’t have a part and complete it. So we had some suppliers who got into trouble and couldn’t continue shipping, ”Kowalski told the Duluth News-Tribune in early March.
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But the pandemic is passing and Cirrus’ job numbers are recovering.
“Airports across the country and within the state are seeing a 30 to 40 percent decrease (in passenger traffic) compared to 2019,” said Ryan Riesinger, managing director of Grand Forks International Airport, earlier month. “But that’s still a significant improvement over what we were at the time last year. So that’s kind of where we’re at on the coronavirus front.”
Kenville, a member of NDAC, said the pandemic was having far less impact on AND’s aviation program when she said it barely noticed any slowdown in students showing up for flight training. And with aviators looking to the future, there is still much to be done to propel North Dakota into the next generation of flying.
More planes mean more hangars. New types of aviation fuel will mean more types of pumping stations. The list goes on.
Wanner said that is where the rising excise tax revenues will go.
“Really, a large part of the funds we bring in will be used to return them directly to the communities,” said Wanner.