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Mesaba Airlines Saab 340 at KEAU (Photo: Cory W. Watts via Wikimedia Commons)

Eau Claire: Western Wisconsin’s Gateway to the World

Located near the Chippewa River, the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport (CVRA) has made consistent strides to connecting the people of Eau Claire, Wis. and Chippewa Falls to the outside world. The airport’s evolution from a grass field to the present-day two-runway airport has had Minneapolis ties since the beginning. But recent changes in operations have seen CVRA now going a different direction to get Wisconsinites to their destinations.

History

Eau Claire’s original airport was actually located in its namesake county, with an 80-acre soft field being used in 1923 as a way to provide an airport for the western Wisconsin community. The airport was located south of downtown Eau Claire in what is presently known as Putnam Heights, Wis. While the field would start operations in 1923, the city would not gain its own personal airline until 1929 when Eau Claire Airways started scheduled taxi operations around Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Within a decade of the launch of Eau Claire Airways, the city was rapidly approaching the boundaries of the airport, and as aircraft were getting larger, the city decided to move the airport north into neighboring Chippewa County. The new land would be situated between the towns of Chippewa Falls and Eau Claire and sit on the banks of the Chippewa River. Construction would begin in 1939 with the airport opening for service in 1940. Despite the quick opening, construction continued for the next half decade, and ceremonies would later celebrate the full opening of the new airport in 194, including an airshow that same year and the first arrival of a Northwest Airlines Douglas DC-3 in 1947.

The new airport was not anything special for the time, with 4,300-foot runway 4/22 and 4,100-foot runway 14/32 crossing in an X-pattern in the center. The airport came equipped for a handful of hangars and a terminal building for departing passengers. Those two runways are still the only two to be in operation in Eau Claire, with runway 4/22 now expanded to 8,101 feet and runway 14/32 covering only 5,000 feet in length.

Over the decades, small incremental changes were made to Eau Claire’s primary airport, seeing runway and hangar expansions that would allow for larger aircraft and an allocation for more general aviation aircraft. Chippewa Valley is currently the eighth busiest airport in Wisconsin and the smallest in the state for scheduled passenger enplanements.

The latest heavy project at the airport came in 2009, when the partnering cities decided to provide the gateway with a terminal overhaul. The aging terminal was not matching current market demand, and the city invested in a two-year project to bring the airport into the modern age. Advancements such as a baggage carousel and jetbridge would become firsts for the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport. The airport terminal also comes with a landside restaurant — called Hangar 54 Grill — and two conference rooms. The airport also promotes free telephone and wifi usage for passengers when inside the building.

Traffic

On the operations side, Chippewa Valley Regional Airport has seen little variety in destinations. Commercial flights by North Central Airlines, Republic Airlines and Northwest Airlines all resulted in flights heading west to the Minneapolis-St. Paul metroplex over the years. The airport peaked with flights to Minneapolis under Mesaba Airlines operated Northwest Airlink service in 2004 when 48,000 people flew between the two cities. This was supplemented by Sun Country Airlines charters to Bullhead City, Ariz., which would bring the total number of flyers to 50,000 in total.

Flights to Minneapolis were offered using Saab 340 on Mesaba Airlines. However, in the final few years, Northwest would begin to transition flights to Eau Claire onto larger Bombardier CRJ-200s used by both Mesaba Airlines and Pinnacle Airlines.

However, the relationship between Minneapolis and Eau Claire would finally sour during the recession of 2008. Passenger traffic from Eau Claire plummeted from 42,000 in 2007 to just 24,000 in 2009. Under Delta’s control, Eau Claire flights would end as SkyWest Airlines announced that it would operate United Express flights to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Since SkyWest came to town the airport’s number of flyers has returned to numbers slightly below pre-recession Minneapolis numbers. Chippewa Valley’s Chicago flight numbers peaked in 2019 when 45,000 passengers flew between the Windy City and the Music Capital of the North.

SkyWest’s service is currently operated under the Essential Air Service banner, being one of two airports in Wisconsin to be in the EAS program. Chippewa Valley Regional Airport’s contract is worth $2.36 million. The route is flown using three daily trips on 50-seat Bombardier CRJ-200s.

As previously mentioned, Sun Country also operated occasional charter flights between Eau Claire and Bullhead City as a way to get Wisconsinites to the casinos more easily. These flights were operated using Boeing 727s and eventually replaced by Boeing 737s. These flights would accumulate between 1,000 and 2,000 flyers a year. Despite consistent passenger counts, Sun Country charter flights have not operated since 2018.

While commercial flights have lumbered along, it’s a different type of lumber movement that has seen Eau Claire’s airport gain traction. The explosion of home improvement chain Menards across the Midwest has seen the airport become a key component in travel for the company. Menards started flying its own aircraft in 2011 with the acquisition of an ex-SkyWest Embraer EMB-120 from Brasilia. The operator has since expanded the fleet to include four Embraer ERJ-135, acquired from Intel Air Shuttle and RCR Air. Menards’ fleet is entirely based in Chippewa Valley Regional Airport, located just seven miles away from the company’s main distribution center.

Ian McMurtry
Ian McMurtry
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