A member of the ground crew guides a chartered Allegiant jet to a gate recently at the Central Nebraska Regional Airport in Grand Island. Consultants discussed their plans to further enhance air service development for the airport Wednesday at Tom Dinsdale Automotive. (Independent/Barrett Stinson)

In the last 15 years, the Central Nebraska Regional Airport has seen tremendous growth.

In 2005, travelers were only able to access a handful of destinations from Grand Island. Now, according to Mike Olson, Hall County Airport Authority executive director, travelers can plot routes to more than 700 different destinations because of the airport’s connections with Dallas through American Airlines since 2011 and the Las Vegas and Mesa, Ariz. through Allegiant Airlines since 2008.

Olson said, this year, the airport could reach more than 70,000 enplanements. That would surpass its previous record of 69,000 in 2016. In 2005, boarding was about 7,500 travelers.

Central Nebraska Regional Airport’s success story and its future were the topics of a special community meeting about Airline Industry and Air Service Development on Wednesday at Dinsdale Automotive.

Along with Olson, Mead & Hunt representative Doug Blissit, a consultant for the airport, gave presentations. Olson talked about the airport’s success and challenges, while Blissit put the growth of the Grand Island’s airport in context with the success of the nation’s airline industry in recent decades.

Olson said the meeting was part of the continuing community education of the HCAA to inform people about the opportunities CNRA has to grow.

During his 14 years as HCAA executive director, Olson said what he is most proud of is “How the community has rallied around the airport, all the air service we added and supported it.”

“It has been worth it, as we have had Allegiant for 11 years and American for 8.5 years,” he said. “Obviously, the community has shown its support by buying airline tickets and supporting our cause, mission, and strategy.”

According to Blissit, enplanements have gone up more than 900% over the last 15 years.

“Grand Island, the community, and the airport and Mike and his team have done things that very few airports across the country have been able to achieve,” Blissit said.

According to Blissit, one of the trends in the airline industry that Grand Island has been able to capitalize on is the growth of ulta-low airlines, such as Allegiant.

He presented a detailed background on trends that have helped Grand Island’s airport grow, both directly and indirectly.

Airlines have been consistently profitable since 2010, with a growth of $100 billion in net income from 2010 to 2018. Helping to grow the airline industry are such factors as a strong economy; lower fuel prices; increases in ancillary revenue, such as carry-on fees; and fleet renewal to more efficient and larger aircraft.

“The airline industry has been a cyclical industry and a basket-case in some years,’Blissit said. “But, for the last nine years, they have been a consistently profitable performance with profits at levels that have been reached before.”

He said while a handful of airlines dominate the industry, smaller ultra-low fare airlines, such as Allegiant, have helped to drive down airline prices by 10 percent over the last ten years overall.

Blissit said the airline industry is “Still a healthy growth industry.”

And that is good news for Grand Island’s airport.

“Grand Island is in a strong position,” he said. “They have been bucking some of the trends that you see around the U.S., such as (how) smaller-sized airports are losing service and capacity, while Grand Island continues to grow.”

Blissit said Grand Island’s airport is a great success story, “But there is more opportunity out there.”

Currently, Grand Island airport has 24 flights weekly, including 19 to Dallas through American Airlines and three to Mesa, Ariz. and two to Las Vegas, through Allegiant Airlines. That is a growth of 11% since 2005 in flights, 350% in the number of seats offered, and 900% growth in the number of passengers. The average load factor is nearly 80%, compared to the mid-30% range 15 years ago.

During the presentation, the audience learned that while the nation’s largest airports have seen a 17% growth since 2005, medium hubs about 2% and smaller hubs have seen seat declines as nearly 100 airports have lost service, Grand Island has experienced that 350% growth.

Olson said in 2005, the airport generated less than $2 million in annual ticket revenue. Today, that ticket revenue brings in more than $20 million annually. Average airfares have declined since 2007, when Allegiant Airlines came to Grand Island, and fares are still below the U.S. average.

Olson said the bottom line for CNRA is “to continue to earn our air service.”

“We have to support what we have to get more, such as bigger aircraft, bigger frequencies, and new destinations,” Olson said. “We have to prove to the airlines that we can achieve that because if you can’t support them, they won’t come here.”

On Olson and his staff’s part, he said they have to keep in front of the airlines, knowing the industry trends and the potential opportunities.

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