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Duluth International Airport

Duluth International Airport's Unique First-Class Experience

Carin Hall

New upgrades and a recommitment to customer service put Duluth on the map as an airport destination of choice
Duluth International Airport's Unique First-Class Experience


Rich in aviation history that dates back to the early 20th century, Duluth International Airport has transformed Northeastern Minnesota into a vital location for its ever growing aviation industry. It supports approximately 4,400 aviation related jobs and is home to the 148th Fighter Wing, AAR, Lake Superior College Center for Advanced Aviation, Monaco Air Duluth and Cirrus Aircraft, the largest general aviation manufacturer in the world. As the second busiest commercial airport in the state of Minnesota, it serves a region that encompasses northeastern Minnesota, northwestern Wisconsin, and the upper peninsula of Michigan as well as Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada.  

What stands out the most about Duluth International Airport is the number of convenient direct flights offered to both the leisure and business traveler.

“You can connect to the rest of the world pretty easily through Duluth,” says Executive Director, Tom Werner, who has worked in a variety of  roles throughout the airport since 1999. And the convenience factor doesn't stop there. With the airport's latest $78 million construction of a new terminal, Duluth International is well on its way to solidifying its role as a significant airport in the industry.

“Having the brand new, world class facility is a springboard for economic development and business opportunity,” says Werner. “It will allow for further growth and expansion of our services in the future.”

Over the years, Duluth International Airport has expanded to 21 full-time employees and over 150,000 annual enplanements. Having the capabilities to process international aircraft further extends the possibilities for reaching new destinations with current or new airline partners.

“It's always incumbent for airports to sustain the relationships and services they have,” explains Werner. “In this industry, it's not good enough to sit still; we need to constantly be looking for new revenue opportunities that benefit the region.”

What's more is the terminal creates what its Project Designer, Frank Gratton of RS&H, calls a “dynamic gateway to the region,” drawing inspiration from forms, colors, and landscaping native to the community:

“The reddish cladding on the terminal core walls is symbolic of the red steel hulls of the freighters and ships that navigate the Great Lakes; the design of the land side roof is inspired the the waves of Lake Superior; and the striking geometric patter on the terrazzo floor is an artistic reference to the lines formed by the cracking of ice on frozen lakes and rivers.”

The use of color in its design enhances passengers' experience, previously dominated by the grey skies and snow of Duluth's winters.


The new building will play a substantial role in the airport's next phase of expansion, attracting new opportunities that will help to diversify revenue streams. But it doesn't stop at just generating more business; upgrades made at the airport also have a significant impact on the local economy and environment.

“Over the course of the project, we worked with over 110 contractors and subcontractors from around the state and approximately 300 sustainable construction jobs were produced,” says Werner.

With the help of RS&H, funding for the new terminal was attained from a variety of  resources, including grants from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), without having to rely on a local tax subsidy.

The building itself obtained LEED Silver certification, ensuring that the pieces of the former building were diverted from landfill waste to the highest possible level. The front facade of the building is composed of 40-foot high glass windows, allowing for natural light to wash into the building versus artificial light, saving on operational costs. Under a Voluntary Airport Low Emissions Program (VALE) through the FAA, some 80 geothermal wells have been tied into Duluth International Airport's heating and cooling systems, providing a renewable energy source for 75 percent of the facility's heating requirements and the entire cooling load in the summer.

“Those two upgrades in energy efficiency alone will equate to substantial savings in the long term,” says Werner.

Although the terminal itself has approximately the same square footage as the original terminal, it's designed to have a more efficient use of space.

“The design was developed with the user in mind to enhance the flow and overall experience of the traveler,” says Project Manager John Hippchen, Office Manager of RS&H Duluth. Under a General Consultant agreement with the Duluth Airport Authority, RS&H also provides architectural, engineering, planning and environmental services including a Snow Removal Equipment facility, a joint airport-Air National Guard fire station, runway, taxiway and apron rehabilitation.


Despite Duluth International Airport's impressive upgrades in infrastructure and technology, one aspect about its culture remains the same: the human component.

“All of our partners inside the terminal have renewed their commitment to customer service,” says Werner. “We strive everyday to provide a first class customer experience, not only through the functionality of the new building, but through the people that customers meet and interact with.” 

Whereas many airports around the country have replaced people on the floor with electronic kiosks, Werner explains that there is an expectation of human interaction with the people coming in and out of Duluth, “from assistance in checking in to having someone there to greet you with a smile on their face.”

With a staff of only 21 full-time employees, regulated under the Duluth Airport Authority based on the airport's revenue, being able to cover all grounds and manage a facility of its size is a monumental task—one that would easily require a significantly larger staff.

“We accomplish a lot with less here,” says Werner. “It's very challenging, but extremely rewarding.”

Looking ahead, Duluth International Airport will continue to provide that same passion for first-class customer service experience as it expands its reach across the industry, putting it on the map as a destination of choice in the industry. 

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