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The sky is the limit

Sawyer airport continues to grow

Airport staff work on an aircraft parked in an American Airlines hangar at Sawyer International Airport for maintenance. (Journal photo by Trinity Carey)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the first part of a two-day series recognizing the 20th anniversary of Sawyer International Airport.

MARQUETTE — Sawyer International Airport first began offering commercial air services in September 1999. Over the last two decades, the airport has seen a wealth of growth, and with it must come expansion and improvements to the facilities and services offered.

In the last few years alone, the airport has completed numerous projects, including a runway rehabilitation.

The project, which took several years of planning, was completed just last year and shortened the runway from 12,377 feet to 9,071 feet.

“It was a pretty substantial project, but it’s potentially going to carry us into 10-plus years of future use,” said Sawyer International Airport Manager Duane DuRay, later adding, “In all reality, 9,071 feet is more than adequate for the operations that we have.”

General repairs and upkeep to the runway were funded by the Federal Aviation Administration until 2010. When the federal dollars expired, runway repairs had to be paid for with the airport’s general fund, DuRay said.

With a significantly shorter runway comes less maintenance.

“When you think, we took off 3,500 feet,” DuRay said. “That’s almost a quarter of the pavement taken away, so we should experience some savings with operations, plowing, pavement repairs, painting, lighting and so on so forth.”

But a shorter runway doesn’t mean downsizing for Sawyer International Airport.

“The runway is more than sufficient at its current size,” DuRay said. “We accept just about any type of aircraft that would need to operate out of here. When you think about it, we’re equal to Lansing, which is the state capital, and they have regular mainline air carriers, so we’re more than adequately prepared to handle anything Marquette would need.”

Growth and expanding services for patrons of Sawyer International Airport is always at the center of the airport staff’s goals, officials said.

Sawyer is looking forward to the expansion of its commercial aviation terminal, which serves general passengers flying through popular airline providers such as Delta and American Airlines.

The project is still a couple years out and exactly what it entails is yet to be decided, DuRay said.

The airport is currently working on a Concept Budget Report in collaboration with Mead & Hunt Inc., the FAA and Michigan Department of Transportation – Aeronautics to discuss what improvements are needed at Sawyer currently and in the years to come.

But a few things are definite in the terminal expansion project. The airport’s sterile area is the main concern, DuRay said.

A sterile area refers to the in-between area of an airport that is post-Transportation Security Administration, but pre -aircraft or jet bridge.

DuRay imagines a space that can fit more people and provides a larger, more full-service waiting area for passengers, like those seen at bigger hubs that include shops and various concession options.

“We’re going to be expanding our sterile area to accommodate larger aircraft and our goal is we would love to see over 100 seats in the sterile area, so that you as a passenger, you come in, you get checked in, you go through screening and then you’re in that area,” DuRay said.

Overall, the airport was designed with smaller aircraft and fewer passengers in mind, he said, so baggage areas and other services will also need updating in the coming years.

Offering the same services provided at larger airports has been an active goal of airport staff. Passengers can now enjoy TSA precheck to speed up the security process or fly first class from Sawyer as it was recently certified as a Category 3 airport, which means another level of security has been implemented at the airport.

Recent growth, such as a 13% increase in passenger load factors, has led to these numerous advances, and staffers hope these additional services will help the continued expansion of the airport. Sawyer served 105,000 passengers in 2018 and projects to see 120,000 next year, DuRay said.

As the airport expands and strives to provide all services wanted by passengers, DuRay said the airport does not want to be a for-profit entity, but rather be self-sustaining, a goal the FAA wants airports to meet.

“The airport as a whole, we do not want to cost non-aviation users anything,” DuRay said. “The expense of operating an airport should be paid for by the people who use the airport.”

But the airport has its reach into the community far more than one would expect, DuRay said. It provides aviation services to Northern Michigan University, UP Health System-Marquette and various other local businesses. It also works with FedEx and UPS, so Marquette residents can enjoy faster shipping services for online purchases.

Whether you’re a frequent flyer or an online shopper, Sawyer International Airport touches everybody, DuRay said.

A Business After Hours event to celebrate the airport’s 20th anniversary will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. tonight at the Holiday Inn of Marquette. The event will feature door prizes, photo ops and other activities. The event is free to attend and open to the public.

“It’s going to be a fun time celebrating,” said Jody Lindberg, who handles development and marketing for Sawyer. “Twenty years out here is really a good milestone and we want to make it a fun event. We’ve got some fun stuff planned for the night. We really encourage anyone who wants to find out more about the airport to come.”

Trinity Carey can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.