GRAND FORKS -- Joe Headrick, manager of Thief River Falls Regional Airport, has his fingers crossed.

Congress is about to spend a lot of money on infrastructure — roughly $1 trillion, by the looks of it. And it would be a big blessing if some of it flowed to his patch of runways in the northwest Minnesota community.

“If there is an infrastructure bill, conceivably that would relieve some of the pressure” on the current pool of airport funds, Headrick said, potentially leaving more for places like Thief River Falls.

Take plans for a runway extension, which needs tens of millions of dollars to finance not just the construction itself, but a shift in the nearby highway and relocating critical flight aids. That’s the kind of thing, Headrick argues, that’s helpful for the local economy — and it would be a boon if the new bill would help out.

“Everybody is stuck at home, you’re shopping on Amazon. Our economy is driven by cargo, especially in Thief River Falls,” Headrick said, pointing out electronics supplier Digi-Key’s big local presence and a continuing global shortage of semiconductors. That’s not to mention the role the airport plays supplying farmers and local hospitals, he said.

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Thief River Falls’ small airport usually doesn’t nab big windfalls of federal cash, Headrick added, and especially given congressional leaders’ habit of funding the government on “continuing resolutions — essentially patch jobs that extend funding rather than full budgets.

So Headrick, along with many airport managers across the Upper Midwest, have their eyes on Congress as it considers the infrastructure plan. There’s reportedly tens of billions of dollars that could soon be set aside for airports around the country.

Not everyone is as focused on the federal infrastructure bill. Denis Olson, who leads the Airport Authority Board in Devils Lake, said leaders are eyeing a big terminal expansion funded by COVID relief money — meaning the infrastructure bill isn’t really on the radar right now. But even when budgets are stable and expenses look surmountable, more federal funding always helps, airport leaders say.

Ryan Riesinger, who manages Grand Forks International Airport, said he’s eyeing significant runway construction in the near future.

“To have infrastructure bills that provide additional resources for projects like these certainly help to advance those projects,” Riesinger said.

Ryan Riesinger became the new executive director of the Grand Forks Airport Authority this month, succeeding the former director Patrick Dame who left for a new job in South Dakota.  photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Ryan Riesinger became the new executive director of the Grand Forks Airport Authority this month, succeeding the former director Patrick Dame who left for a new job in South Dakota. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Ditto for Katie Hemmer, who directs the Jamestown Regional Airport. She said that in coming years, she’s hoping to see the airport shift resources toward airfield lighting, which is typically lower on a list of priorities than, say, runway surfaces. For smaller airports especially, she said, the juggling of needs and wants can be difficult.

“I’m sure there’s so many other airports that are still trying to meet their (runway) surface needs,” she said, without having as much opportunity to plan ahead for other items.

Nearly everyone in aviation is still grappling with the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, which has scrambled passenger numbers. Though the number of passengers headed off to vacation has begun to rebound, business travel still remains low, North Dakota air officials say. It’s something airports and airlines alike will have to overcome in the years and months ahead.

“Airlines have cited an inability to add additional flights due to staff shortages, and the industry has still not yet seen a strong recovery in business and government travel due to persisting COVID-19 concerns,” Kyle Wanner, executive director of the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission, said in a news release this week. “North Dakota also experiences challenges associated with travel restrictions at the Canadian border, which impedes the ability for airline passenger growth to occur from the travel of Canadian citizens.”

Hemmer said it’s been a case of whiplash for many airlines, who suddenly had to shed oversized workforces at the onset of the pandemic, and then have had to manage growing those labor pools despite sudden labor shortages across the country.

“What the airlines went through these past two years was just crazy,” she said. “... I think that’s a big portion of what you’re seeing in aviation.”

The infrastructure bill won’t solve that problem, but it’ll help make airports ready for its aftermath. The infrastructure bill is broadly popular, winning 69 votes in the Senate, but it hasn’t had a vote in the House yet. Democrats are still settling an internal party debate about the scope of their more ambitious social spending plan. The infrastructure measure has become entangled in negotiations, but is still expected to see a vote soon.

That’s good for places like Thief River Falls, which is always looking for more help to make bigger projects happen. As inflation drives up construction costs, price tags just get bigger, and that’s why Headrick is hoping any money that comes his way gets there sooner rather than later.

“As things get kicked out, the more expensive they become,” Headrick said. “So there is a cost of not doing anything.”