By Nels Lund, Airport Planner
The Upper Midwest Aviation Symposium (UMAS) was a success again this year, even with the COVID-19 virus looming on the horizon. If UMAS had been scheduled for a week or two later, who knows if anyone would have attended or if it would have been held. Even though the virus was wreaking havoc in other parts of the world, aviation was the focus in Minot, ND, the first week of March.
Held at the Grand Hotel, the theme for UMAS 2020 was “A Grand Time in Aviation: Then, Now…”, and it truly was that and more. At the opening social, attendees congratulated the pilots who completed the North Dakota Aeronautics Passport Program in the past year. They were also introduced to Dr. Carlene Mendieta, who flew a nearly identical flight path as Amelia Earhart across the U.S. She shared the story of her historic trip in depth the following day.
On day two, attendees learned about the opening of the new commercial service airport in Williston, an exciting accomplishment for aviation in North Dakota. Various meetings were held during the three-day event with staff from North Dakota airports, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission (NDAC), and their respective engineers. Most of these meetings covered current and upcoming projects at local airports. To conclude the day’s events, attendees enjoyed a spectacular drone show, held in the pool area.
During the final day of UMAS, NDAC Director Kyle Wanner shared how far North Dakota aviation has come in the past decade. He spoke of the accomplishments airports have made in completing projects, and a near record year of enplanements in 2019. This trend looked to continue into 2020, possibly a record year of enplanements in North Dakota. The three-day event was topped off with the Hall of Fame Social and Awards Banquet. Al Sauter was inducted to the North Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame, Tioga and Williston airports received the Airport of the Year awards in their respective categories, and many individuals received various scholarships and awards.
Within weeks of UMAS, airports across the state were seeing extremely low traffic due to COVID-19. Most of our commercial airports in North Dakota had less than 100 passengers a day, with some even as low as four passengers a day. There was one day the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported around 150,000 passengers through checkpoints across the county, down from over 2,100,000 on the same day in 2019. Air Traffic Control towers in locations across the country have had complications with staffing, due to controllers contracting COVID-19.
Though one may look back and think that UMAS was a long time ago and perhaps overshadowed by COVID-19, our focus is on the positives, right now and the future. The current state of aviation in North Dakota is temporary; we will get through this and become stronger than ever. We need to help each other, as airports are vital to many industries, including the medical field. Aviation plays a key role in transporting medical supplies and workers, food and goods, energy workers, and other essential employees and products that keep us going day-to-day. We are grateful for what we had when the economy and airports were booming. We also are grateful for what we have now: our families, our health, and knowing that keeping our airports functional is saving lives, even though traffic and revenues may be down. We are thankful for what we had then and have now, as it is and will forever be “A Grand Time in Aviation.”