Background on new Williston airport and opposition to even building it

This is the size plane the Williston airport can handle. Notice the size of the door for scale. Photo courtesy of
This is the size plane the Williston airport can handle. Notice the size of the door for scale. Photo courtesy of

The Bismarck Tribune has a good article on the new Williston airport, which is being built outside of town and will handle medium-sized jets. It will replace the current airport, which is in town and has a runway that can only handle smaller regional jets. I picture a runway that can handle 150 passenger jets versus a runway limited to jets that can carry 50 passengers, like the CRJ above.

Two county commissioners don’t see any reason to build the new airport.

The article:  Williston airport proponents chart aggressive course.

Current funding plan for new airport:

  • $120M – FAA advance, which is repayable over time
  • $59M – state funding
  • $27M – land acquisition funded by FAA
  • $48M – proceeds from sale of old airport and ongoing airport revenues (I’m not sure what that last part means)
  • $254M – estimated total cost

Here is a comparison of the current and new airports:

  • new – current
  • 1,540 – 740 – acres
  • 100,000 – 9,600 – terminal in square feet – ten times larger in size
  • 7,500 – 6,650 – length of primary runway
  • 150 – 100 – width of primary runway
  • 1,000 – 450 – approximate number of parking spaces – double the capacity


Plan is to break ground in spring 2016 and finish all construction by fall 2018.

New versus upgrade

Interesting comment in the article compares:

  • cost of building a new airport


  • upgrading the current airport so it is not only in full compliance with current weight limits but could also handle larger jets.

The new airport is estimated to cost $254M while upgrading the current airport would require an estimated $240M.

A few of the major issues driving the high cost to renovate the current airport include widening the runway, lengthening the runway, moving the taxiway, and leveling one end of the runway. I’d add to the list finding space for the new terminal and constructing the new terminal while leaving the current one in operation. Or in the alternative, building a temporary terminal, demolishing the current one, and then building a new terminal, and the demo the temp building. If you have been on the tarmac or looked at a satellite photo, let me know where a new 100,000 square foot facility would fit.

Passenger traffic

Passenger traffic is measured in a term called “enplanements”, which is the number of passengers getting on board.

Full year enplanements:

  • 11,229 – 2009
  • 114,281 – 2014
  • Up 101.8% over 5 years

September year-to-date passenger traffic:

  • 87,521 – 2014 YTD
  • 86,254 – 2015 YTD
  • Down 1.4% YTD

September only enplanements:

  • 10,587 – 9/14
  • 8,497 – 9/15
  • Down 19.7% from same month prior year

Is the airport even needed?

Article quotes two county commissioners who do not see any need for a new airport. At first I was thinking neither of them had tried to either park at the airport or actually flown out of Williston in the last three years.

If you have ever been in the airport, you know it is really cramped with really full flights. There is one lane for TSA screening and two gates located in a modular unit. The only food service at the airport is two vending machines outside security and two after you clear the TSA screening.

Then I saw that one the commissioners has actually been on a plane out of Williston. He has proof certain of the lack of need for a new airport:  he was on a recent flight out of Williston that was only half full.

I am sure there are certain flights on select days that have lots of seats. On the other hand…

My experience flying in and out of town twice in 2015 is that open seats are hard to find. We had to structure our travel around when flights weren’t all sold out.

Using the commissioner’s one-round-trip evidential standards as explained in the article, my experience of flying to Williston conclusively proves the new airport should already have been completed.

The editorial board of the Bismarck Tribune doesn’t think the airport is needed either (article is listed as an editorial, not a letter to the editor):  Williston airport questions linger.

Three arguments are cited why a nearby city (3 1/2 hour drive) doesn’t need to expand the airport that competes with the airports in Minot and Bismarck.

First, one named landowner whose farm has been in the family since the late 1800s doesn’t want to move or even have the airport near him. The implication is someone who has owned land a long time can veto public projects. Wonder if he vetoed the wells on his land, or his neighbors.

Second, there are two county commissioners who don’t think Williston needs an airport. The basis for that conclusion, as cited in newspaper reports mentioned above, is one of them took a flight to Minneapolis that had actually had empty seats. Wish I could have borrowed two of those seats for my trips in and out of town.

The third reason is that it will only cost local governments half of what the county commissioner said it will cost. The newspaper estimates it will run $120M instead of the $250M cited by the commissioner. The difference will be funded by federal and state dollars.  The newspaper asks whether a new airport for Williston is an appropriate priority when there is huge demand for scarce infrastructure dollars. Hidden in that concern is other cities (i.e. Bismarck) and other counties (i.e. Burleigh) are competing for those scarce construction dollars.

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