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Drop in aviation numbers affects small airports like Red Wing

Blue Airways mechanic Matt Buck (left), CEO Tom Blue and COO Sam Blue pose in Red Wing Regional Airport's hangar.

BAY CITY - According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there were about 835.5 million people worldwide who traveled by plane in 2007. Last year, that number had fallen to just more than 801 million.

But that drop in air travel isn't being felt only by big airlines. General aviation is feeling the effects, too.

Blue Airways Inc., the company that operates the Red Wing Regional Airport, has seen an even more drastic drop in passengers in the last five years.

"It's been slow," owner Sam Blue said. "It's 60 percent of what it was then."

Blue said it's not just the recession that caused the drop in business. Instead, he said, businesses have become more sensitive since automobile executives received criticism for flying private planes to Washington, D.C., to get their bailout checks in 2008.

"The industry has gotten a black eye since that happened," Blue said.

However, Blue was quick to dispel perceptions that private planes are a waste of money. Instead, he said, they can really be quite cost effective.

Blue said with a private jet, employees are able to choose their departure times. That means they can leave right before a business meeting and return right after, skipping the cost of hotel rooms and meals that might be incurred if they were at the mercy of commercial airline schedules.

"The net cost per hour can end up cheaper than airlines in many situations," Blue said.

Wes Converse, co-owner of Red Wing Aeroplane, a private jet charter company based out of the Red Wing airport, echoed Blues statements.

"A lot of times you can go to your destination, do your business and come back the same day," he said. "It's really all about the time and convenience."

In addition, employees are able to work while in the air, ramping up productivity and avoiding losing travel time compared to driving, Blue said.

"There's so much time savings. It's a tool to be more efficient," he said. "At the end of the quarter or end of the year, you end up getting a lot more accomplished."

Currently, the airport provides services for four local businesses, including Red Wing Shoe Co., Blue said.

"We utilize it every week," said Jim Cushing, the Shoe's chief pilot.

The Shoe has owned a plane since 1959. Cushing cited convenience and time as the chief reasons the company flies out of Red Wing rather than Minneapolis-St. Paul.

"Airplanes are business tools of convenience and time," he said. "Commercial flights only serve about 500 airports in the U.S. There are over 5,000 general aviation airports ... that serve private aircraft that are usually closer to the businesses we are meeting."

Cushing added that trips for the Shoe cover most of the continental United States. Passengers generally include customers coming to Red Wing from across the country and Shoe employees going to business meetings, trade shows and manufacturing facilities.

"Many of these destinations are not near a major commercial airport," Cushing said.

Blue said he'd like to see more local businesses using the Red Wing airport and the services it offers.

Still, he doesn't see this current slump lasting forever, he said.

"I think it will gradually come back," he said.