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The collapse of the I-35 freeway bridge last August thrust Minnesota into the national spotlight and highlighted the logistical challenges of navigating the Minneapolis-St. Paul metroplex. A serpentine network of rivers and lakes divides the area, which is home to 3.5 million people. The Mississippi River serves as the natural boundary between the glass towers of the seemingly more modern Minneapolis and the grand old massive stone architecture of St. Paul, the state capital.
The region, which is interconnected by an overtaxed freeway system, includes a sprawling suburbia. (Minneapolis proper has only 372,000 residents.) Even before the bridge collapse, the area had some of the worst surface traffic in the country. But it also has the nation's third-largest system of metropolitan airports. Generally neat, clean and well-maintained, they can take the edge off "ground-pounding" and help make visiting the area an enjoyable experience.
Most of these airports are administered under the central Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Airports Commission. The Commission has drawn up ambitious expansion plans for the reliever airports and some construction has already begun, ensuring that as the region grows, its airports will, too.
Here's a look at those airports and at the ground-support operations (FBOs) they offer.
Minneapolis-St. Paul International
Northwest Airlines is responsible for 80 percent of the traffic at this airport and ground control frequencies at peak hours are regularly clogged. Waiting on the ramp to fly out of here recently, I felt like a game-show contestant who was always a second late with the clicker as I keyed my microphone and tried to get through for nearly 20 minutes. The practice of holding traffic at the airport or at the airports of origin for inbound flights has become an almost daily occurrence.
Still, on a hot summer day with a fully loaded large Gulfstream, this is the only game in town, the only airport with long enough runways. That's why many big local companies such as 3M base their birds here and why General Dynamics Aviation Services has an engine overhaul and major maintenance shop on the field.
The airport has other things going for it, as well: It's across the street from the Mall of America (see box on page 62) and the commercial passenger terminal is home to Ike's, one of the country's best airport restaurants. (Try the walleye and chips-to die for.)
That said, if time is critical, you'd be wise to consider alternatives to this airport, which will be under perpetual construction until 2010. If you can't go elsewhere, at least plan to arrive and depart during nonpeak hours, when delays should be minimal unless the weather turns bad, in which case all bets are off.
Signature Flight Support opened a terminal here five years ago that remains one of the nicest in the country-with all the service and amenities $6.64-a-gallon jet-A and a $525 handling fee can buy. (That fee, for a Citation X, is waived with a 400-gallon fuel purchase.) Signature's FBO here consistently ranks among the best in the country in surveys by our sister publication, Aviation International News. In addition to all the upper-end amenities, the facility boasts 120,000 square feet of hangar space. And if you need maintenance, you'll be glad to hear that Signature is on the same ramp as General Dynamics Aviation Services.
St. Paul Downtown
This airport is a mile south of St. Paul's business district and 15 minutes from downtown Minneapolis. For convenience, that makes it hard to beat. Its runway can accommodate the largest corporate jets under most circumstances.
The airport is a busy place, with 100 based aircraft, many of them jets, and 125,000 annual takeoffs and landings. Because the facility backs up to the Mississippi River, development space is at a premium and, other than the FBOs, you won't find many amenities on the field. However, St. Paul is so close that it mitigates almost any inconvenience this could cause. Three times in the last 13 years, proximity to the river resulted in flooding here. Floodwall construction is being considered.
Like Signature's facility at Minneapolis/St. Paul International, Million Air-Regent Aviation's FBO here regularly ranks among the country's best in Aviation International News' surveys, and for good reason. The staff is friendly and responsive, the building is comfortable and the amenities are top-notch, from fresh-baked cookies to massages to luxury crew cars (Jaguars the last time I was there). Free shuttles run to Minneapolis-St. Paul International and the Mall of America. Duncan Avionics offers service. Enterprise provides rental cars.
St. Paul Flight Center operates out of a slightly less grand facility but features full service and amenities, including conference and crew rooms. Flight Center isn't a 24-hour operation, but it does offer call-out service. Its large hangars can accommodate aircraft up to the size of a Gulfstream 550.
South St. Paul-Fleming Field
Fleming is only six miles south of St. Paul Downtown and their traffic patterns can overlap.
This facility is home to a Commemorative Air Force wing with flying warbirds. The CAF museum on the field is open Wednesdays and Saturdays. The airport also hosts two significant businesses: Wipaire, the nation's leading floatplane outfitter; and Sierra Hotel Aero, a firm that restores classic aircraft. Wipaire is known for its custom interior installations on Cessna Caravans and can service most turboprop and piston aircraft.
The city of South St. Paul provides most FBO services here. Its terminal stays open until sunset and features a spacious lobby and a conference room. Self-service fuel pumps are available 24/7. (Wipaire also offers FBO services; however, this isn't the company's main business and you shouldn't expect the level of attention received at a typical full-service FBO.)
Transient hangar space on the field is hard to find unless you've arranged for it in advance. Because of South St. Paul's nonprecision instrument approach and short runways, it is a venue best reserved for turboprops and piston aircraft. Of the 305 based aircraft here, only six are jets. However, the airport does sit on elevated terrain far above the Mississippi and probably won't flood.
Flying Cloud/Eden Prairie
The only thing keeping Flying Cloud from becoming a major magnet for corporate aircraft is its runways-the longest is just 3,900 feet and their maximum load is 30,000 pounds. Runway extensions are being considered. Flying Cloud is home to more than 400 aircraft and has 144,000 takeoffs and landings per year. Its location, 13 miles southwest of downtown Minneapolis, puts it close to the city's "first ring" suburbs. You'll find many aircraft services on the field. Airovation, a refurbisher of light and corporate-class aircraft, is based here and one of the FBOs stays open 24 hours.
Flying Cloud is ideal for larger turboprops and light corporate jets. One warning, though: There is a dearth of good restaurants nearby and you should make catering requests at least a day ahead of time. The good news is that Enterprise and Hertz rental cars are available. And the nearby Valleyfair Amusement Park is a favorite fly-in destination on weekends.
Executive Aviation's FBO is in a modern building with a conference room and all the other typical amenities. It offers 24-hour service and crew cars. Maintenance is available. Executive attracts many turboprops.
ASI Jet Center's facilities parallel Executive's, but operates only from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The terminal has a crew lounge and sleep room.
Elliott Aviation's Twin Cities outpost provides a wide array of factory-authorized services for Learjets, Falcon Jets and Cessna Citations and most of the transient jet traffic on the field seems to gravitate here. The terminal has a large conference room, a pilots' lounge and a sleep room.
Anoka County, serving the northern suburbs, is also a favorite for corporate operators. It features a contract control tower and a full instrument landing system. The airport, 15 miles northwest of downtown Minneapolis, is host to 490 based aircraft and logs more than 90,000 takeoffs and landings per year.
Cirrus Aviation is a 24-hour operation except on weekends (when it closes at 10 p.m.) and is the FBO of choice for most corporate operators on the field. Cirrus offers rental cars from Thrifty, Enterprise and Hertz, and full aircraft maintenance. The terminal, though not plush, features the usual amenities.
While Crossroads Aviation is open only until 7 p.m., call-out service is available at no charge. The terminal features a simple lounge. Crossroads was recently purchased by a charter operator that flies King Airs. It has its own maintenance shop and services other aircraft.
Lakeville is a fast-growing suburb, about 25 miles south of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and Airlake there has all the right elements to become a major corporate airport. Several major retailers, strip malls and restaurants are nearby and the airport entrance is just a few miles from a major interstate freeway, I-35 South. A full instrument landing system is in place and the runway can handle jets weighing up to 80,000 pounds.
Aircraft Resource Center is constructing a state-of-the-art terminal here that is slated to open at the end of 2007. The building will feature lounges and conference rooms, exercise and snooze rooms and a restaurant. When the building opens, hours will be extended to 24 from the current 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Enterprise rental cars and local limousine service are available.