FARGO — After an almost complete drop-off of passengers in April compared to a year earlier, travelers have steadily been returning to Hector International Airport this summer.

To help, a $21.6 million federal coronavirus aid CARES Act grant was given to the Fargo airport last spring to help keep the facility open and operating, with more than $10 billion provided to about 400 airports nationwide.

Since that time, Airport Executive Director Shawn Dobberstein said almost $2 million has been used to pay for all airport operations, and another draw-down from the grant is being processed as the facility still faces headwinds.

Passenger numbers have declined 52% in Fargo, according to the latest yearly data through August.

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Nationwide, the largest number of passengers since March boarded a plane on the Friday of Labor Day weekend at 968,673, although numbers still continue to be only half or less of what they were last year.

In Fargo, the largest monthly decline was in April when boardings fell 95%. Last month, passenger numbers declined 47% compared to August 2019. That follows this summer's declines of 86% in May, 77% in June and 62% in July.

It has been tough, but the improving numbers are encouraging to Dobberstein, who said he believes "flying is safe" with safety precautions added by airlines and the terminal.

Hector International is "doing significantly better than other airports in other parts of the country," he said, and with three major construction projects underway at the massive 3,140-acre airport, improvements are moving along.

With passenger numbers rebounding, some national watchdog organizations question the need for continued operational funds after they initially criticized the size of grants

Hector International received the largest single allocation for a governmental unit in North Dakota from the CARES Act, with the Bismarck and Grand Forks airports not far behind. State government received much more aid, but that has been distributed and used by schools, cities, counties and for other virus response needs.

In response to critics, Dobberstein and airport officials believe questioning of the level of aid should be directed to Congress, where allocations were made in the first place.

Dobberstein added the airport funding is no different than grants provided to other business and government operations.

Fargo's funds so far have been used for maintenance, payroll, utilities, more intense cleaning and other operational expenses.

Dobberstein doesn't know when operations will get back to normal. The airport is still losing about $500,000 a month because of lower airline landing fees, parking income, car rentals and concessions.

"It's a stopgap measure until we get back on our feet," Dobberstein said of the grant.

As for the near future, the five airlines who independently serve Fargo are facing another big blow that could also affect Hector International. They may be forced to lay off thousands of employees, thus cutting thousands of flights, if $25 billion in additional aid by Congress isn't approved by Sept. 30.

Fargo Municipal Airport Authority Vice Chairman Erik Lind said their board that oversees the airport operations keeps track of the financial situation.

The authority strives to be "good stewards" of tax dollars, he said, echoing Dobberstein by adding the airport has lost almost all of its revenue stream for months.

As for airport aid, Lind agrees with those who argue there was a "lot of pork" in the CARES Act funding, singling out $500 million for the Public Broadcasting Service as an example.

"We may be forced to turn back some of the grant, and we will if we have to," Lind said. "We're not going to just spend as much as we can."

The federal coronavirus aid, according to the law, can be used for up to four years.

Dobberstein said earlier criticisms came after the Federal Aviation Administration botched a formula last spring that allocated massive amounts to smaller airports, including at one time giving $16 million to the Devils Lake Airport.

In attempting to correct the problem, the FAA capped the CARES Act grants to each airport at four times the airport's annual operating budget.

Lind and Dobberstein said it would be nice to use some of the $21.6 million for airport capital improvement projects as Fargo is a growing and prospering city.

Dobberstein, who is involved in many airport organizations nationwide, said the FAA's Airport Improvement Program is also suffering, as it collects a 7.5% fee on each ticket.

With those funds threatened, he said there will be a discussion in the next year or so about transferring the operating grand money to airport capital projects.

On a more positive note, Dobberstein and Lind pointed out the Fargo airport's air cargo operations have exploded with United Parcel Service and FedEx setting up shop for their regional sorting and distribution hubs for North Dakota and northwest Minnesota.

Earlier this month, it was announced the airport will receive $7 million from the Airport Improvement Program. Those funds will help pay for a $15.9 million cargo apron expansion by a future UPS sorting and distribution center and a $7 million remodeling and expansion project for the airport's ever-growing snow removal equipment operation.

The apron project primarily involves concrete paving in the cargo area of the airport.

With UPS having the nationwide contract for Amazon, which is reportedly planning to build a major distribution center of its own just north of the Fargo airport, the company likely needed the extra space as they have been operating out of an older hangar.

The airport is also doing a $3 million access road and deicing fluid collection system in the cargo area.

FedEx, which has a similar sorting and distribution operation at Hector, has the U.S. Post Office's contract and is adding employees there, too, Dobberstein said.

The snow removal operation improvement involves an expansion of the 32-year-old snow removal building just west of the terminal. The building that houses the larger snowplows and other equipment needed to keep the airport clear in the winter will get more heated storage space.

Also under construction in the airport complex is the $32 million North Dakota Army National Guard's support and training center. The new facility will be used to house, support and train elements of the 141st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, the 191st Military Police Company and the 112th Aviation Regiment.

In a future project flyers will enjoy, an expanded terminal with three or four more gates and an improved restaurant, bar and gift shop area is being studied as passenger numbers have grown. The effort is at a standstill but could get underway within about a three-year period.