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Rochester International Airport in Rochester, Minn. (Photo: Rochester International Airport)

Rochester Airport: The Gateway to Mayo Clinic

For centuries, the deliverance of time-sensitive material has been key in determining the ability to get both time-sensitive services completed. In Rochester, Minn., this demand is most commonly seen by way of bringing in and exporting medial expertise and equipment via air. This brings into play Rochester International Airport. The doorway to Mayo Clinic has ties to the hospital as long as it has existed and continues to provide time-sensitive deliveries for the market.

Originally built in the 1920s by Mayo Clinic as a way to get vital medical supplies and patients to the hospital, the aptly named Rochester Airport was completed in 1929 as a sod field and a few buildings to serve Rochester’s most valuable business. The airport would remain in close control under the Rochester Airport Company, a subsidy of Mayo Clinic. The airport’s location just 2 miles south from the city center allowed for quick transfers from the airport to both downtown and the hospital.

After starting operations, commercial activity would begin at the airfield by way of local airlines making stopover routes between the Midwest, primarily focusing on Chicago and Minneapolis. Airlines appearing at the Rochester Municipal Airport would include Delta Airlines, Ozark Airlines, Braniff Airways and Northwest Airlines.

As the town evolved, the airport would as well. A three-runway concrete configuration would be built on the sod field to allow for better and larger passenger planes as well as the appearance of Douglas C-47 Skytrains during World War II. The longest of these solid surface runways was the 4,470-foot runway 13/31, followed by the 4,210-foot runway 2/20 and 4,050-foot runway 17/35 creating an upside-down ‘V’ that intersected the longest landing strip.

The airport would trade hands after the war as Mayo Clinic would hand over control of the city to the municipality in 1945. However, less than one decade after the exchange of control, the airport was in need of replacement. The current configuration was being closed down on by the city’s southern expansion and with aircraft sizes increasing the demand longer runways drove the city to start work on a replacement field. The airport would eventually change its name to Lobb Field as construction for the new Rochester Municipal Airport would begin in 1952.

In 1960, the airport changed locations, moving eight miles south of downtown to the current Rochester Municipal Airport’s location. The small terminal would stand the test of time, seeing the change from the early jet age to the present aviation scene as traffic has yet to reach max capacity at the terminal.

The new layout would bring in a two-runway layout in an off angled ‘T’ formation. The airport’s longest runway, runway 13/31, stretches 9,034 feet and runs across the face of all major operations including the main terminal, FedEx cargo building, Signature Flight Services and general aviation hangars. Intersecting the primary runway is the 7,301-foot-long runway 2/20. Rochester’s runways are both concrete and the airport rests at an average altitude of 1,317 feet above sea level.

At the time of writing, the airport consists of one single-level four gate terminal. Food and beverage in the small structure are light because of the small structure but the Tailwind Concessions does offer a chance to buy nourishment before flying. While beverages will cost passenger currency, free wifi and quiet rooms allow for work to be done without the interfering noise from the concourses. Rochester is also unique in its promotion of local products including the ‘Arts Elevated’ exhibit to show local artwork and the ‘Books on the Fly’ mini-library promoted by the Rochester Public Book Store which allows flyers to pick a book or leave a book free of charge.

Consistent commercial traffic has seen flights to Chicago O’Hare operated by United Express CRJ-200s doing business as Air Wisconsin and American Airlines ERJ-145s operated by Envoy Air. Delta offers alternative flights on Endeavor Air CRJ-900s to both Minneapolis/St. Paul and Atlanta. Service to Chicago has the largest draw at over 180,000 flyers each year while Delta’s Minneapolis and Atlanta flights draw in roughly 120,000 and 60,000 passengers, respectively.

Further aircraft can be seen thanks to the presence of the Mayo Clinic and its international appeal. The terminal operates its own U.S. Customers and Border Patrol office in the structure for international charter flights and those seeing the world-class care in Minnesota. The airport’s launch of the USCBP in 1995 officially allowed the airport to change its name from ‘municipal’ to ‘international’ that year. International traffic for the hospital has ranged from business jets to an Etihad Airways Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.

And although the airport is not owned by the city’s largest employer anymore, Mayo Clinic still has heavy ties to operations at the airport. The mega-hospital operates an information booth inside the main lobby of the terminal and utilizes the airport for Mayo Clinic’s air services. These services range from mobilizing medical professionals to fight health problems outside Rochester to ferrying ill patients into the city.

Prior to the arrival of COVID-19, Rochester embarked on a series of tasks to help continue the growth of the airport. A jetbridge expansion from three to five gates and a resurfacing of runway 2/20 was agreed upon in 2019 and paves the way for new faces and new airlines to potentially use the airport. Early 2020 saw the airport continue to push for a western destination, preferable United service to Denver. A $750,000 revenue guarantee was secured in February with the goal still being to lure United into operating the flight.

Further expansions have also been noted in the airport’s master plan which was last revised in May 2019. The airport has looked into expanding the terminal to allow for more gates and space, a longer cargo ramp, an enlargement of runway 2/20 and changes to the parking lot structurer at RST. The new lots would see the expansion of long-term parking as well as creating a cell phone lot.

Once the COVID-19 epidemic ceases, the airport will once again plan for expansion. And just like it’s entire history, the Rochester International Airport will continue to push to build toward a world-class airport to match the demand placed on it by the local world-class medical facility.

Ian McMurtry
Ian McMurtry
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