Photo by Ken Klotzbach
Two thousand pieces of Priority Overnight mail delivered from the FedEx Ship Center. A $50 million private jet owned by one of the world’s richest businessmen. The American Airline agents who take your tickets then head to the tarmac with their orange wands to marshal an airplane to the skybridge.
It’s one day in the life of the Rochester International Airport, which is on what they hope is their final approach for a $10.5-million terminal revamp, an upgraded airport categorization, and to re-establishing themselves as the travel hub for Destination Medical Center.
A Tuesday in September, 5:25 a.m.: The fog has settled in over RST, and Jon Bowman, the Operation Manager for the FedEx Ship Center, has three of his semis idling in the parking lot, pointing, basically, toward Minneapolis.
Because if that Boeing 757—the one from Memphis belly-loaded with 14 containers holding 45,000 pounds of FedEx freight—can’t land in Rochester, all hell is going to break loose. And all hell breaking loose is not, according to Bowman, something FedEx appreciates.
Here, at the 72,000-square-foot FedEx Ship Center, which sits just southwest of Rochester International Airport’s main terminal, Bowman’s three-dozen-person sorting crew is waiting, like they are six days a week, to load the 24 FedEx trucks with the 2,000 to 2,500 pieces of P1 (Priority Overnight) that need to be delivered before that magical 10:30 a.m. deadline.
If the plane can’t land, those semis will head north to MSP to be loaded up and returned to Rochester.
The 757 is flying at 20,000 feet and has already passed north of Rochester with the plan now to land at MSP, when Bowman radios the pilots, through Memphis, and tells them the fog is lifting. Begs them, ever so politely, to turn that plane around.
Just like that, they spin that 757 around and head back to RST.
“Sure, we have contingency plans for everything,” he says. “But this will make our day a lot easier. If a package gets delivered at 10:31, it’s a failure,” says Bowman, who opened the facility at 2:30 a.m.
Of today’s 2,400 deliveries, which span everywhere from Wabasha to Albert Lea to Owatonna, five won’t make it in time, a 99.8-percent success rate that’s typical for the Rochester location (and slightly above FedEx’s national rate).
7:58 a.m.: The last of the morning’s 24 FedEx trucks pulls out of the sorting facility on their way to the day’s 2,000-plus stops to deliver, well, anything you can imagine.
The Austin route contains a lot of ham and pepperoni destined for Hormel. IBM gets a lot of electronic parts. Mayo, among other things, receives human specimens.
The Mayo Medical Lab, in fact, sets its morning schedule in part based on the unloading of each day’s 757.
“When those wheels on the airplane stop rolling,” says Bowman, “Tom Griffin over at Mayo Medical Lab sets his stopwatch, and he’ll have 250 boxes on his deck in a half hour. They start their employees based on when this airplane unloads. They rely on us, and their stuff is always first off the plane.”
“We have a contingency plan for everything,” he says. “Everything.”
Today is a relatively slow day, especially for the sorting crew, many of whom, after working their 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. shift, head out to their real jobs.
An airport lands south of the city
This area—this sprawling sorting/shipping/storage facility—72,000 square feet of high ceilings and clean floors and rows of sorting bins—is just one of the areas that few people think about when they think about Rochester International Airport.
Because when you think airport, you think parking and luggage check-in and TSA scans and boarding passes and planes. But that area you see—those public areas of the main terminal—represents just a fraction of what is on pace to become the state’s second-busiest airport.
Sure, Rochester had what could be called an “airport” as early as the mid-1920s, when a group of local businessmen and pilots rented a farm west of the city to land barnstormers and cropdusters, and eventually a company called Jefferson Transportation ran two scheduled flights a day to and from the Twin Cities for $10 one-way. Another makeshift airstrip had cropped up where the fairgrounds sit now.
But the first real airport—the one that RST traces back as its roots—would be, of course, one with Mayo ties. In 1928, the Mayo Foundation—funded by Drs. Will and Charles Mayo—bought 285 acres in what is now Meadow Park, basically between 13th and 20th Streets Southeast and 3rd and 13th Avenues Southeast. The field, originally dedicated as Rochester Airport, served Northwest Airlines, which flew Ford Trimotors to and from St. Paul. By 1940, it featured paved runways and another 85 acres and, in 1952, was renamed Lobb Field (in honor of former airport director Albert J. Lobb).
By the late 1950s, city planners determined the airport—now run by the Rochester Airport Company in conjunction with the city—needed more space further from the city center, and Rochester Municipal Airport was opened, on its current site, in 1960.
In 1973, it got its first traffic control radar and, by federal order, its first security guards. In 1975, a skybridge was added, which meant passengers no longer had to walk outside on the tarmac. X-ray machines in 1978, luggage conveyor belts in 1980, handicap accessibility in 1981.
Today, Rochester International Airport—the “International” was added in 1995 with the addition of a U.S. Customs facility—is quickly on its way to becoming the state’s second-busiest airport (look out, Duluth), with 237,548 passengers in 2014.
RST’s 2,300 acres house, among other things, two airlines, a general aviation facility, five rental car agencies, one restaurant, and a Mayo Clinic information desk in what is basically a tenant-landlord relationship.
That landlord, for all intents and purposes, is John Reed, who took over as airport director in February of 2015 after a 13-year stint as the assistant airport director in Green Bay.
‘That next level of maturity is right here’
“It looks like the fog is finally clearing up,” I tell Reed, as we sit down in his second-floor office.
“Yes,” he says, laughing. “After six months, the fog is finally starting to clear up.”
Because now, after a half year on the job, Reed and his team—made up of 18 full-timers in admin, maintenance, and fire departments—believe they have a clear vision to RST’s “next level of maturity,” which currently centers around two major projects: a terminal upgrade (to relocate the U.S. Customs facility) and a new airport categorization (which would require an upgrade in equipment in order to allow planes to land in the kind of weather conditions that today almost diverted that FedEx flight).
That’s in addition to the normal day-to-day business of the administration, which centers around airlines, car rental issues, contract discussions, negotiations, planning, security, and maintenance.
“Airports in the past were run like utilities—it’s here, come use it,” he says. “Today, a lot of airports are now out marketing themselves, becoming part of the community, and letting people know how important an airport is to the economic vitality of the area.”
You’re an airport that wants a Delta flight to Atlanta? You’re the one pitching to the airline, promoting a business plan, projecting passenger volume.
Tomorrow, in fact, is the one-year anniversary of what has proven to be a successful partnership with Delta, with filled seats in the mid-80-percent range.
Reed has just left his monthly safety and security meeting with TSA people and RST people and FAA people. When he’s done talking to me, he’ll finish up more internal paperwork before heading to a CVB board meeting. Tomorrow brings negotiations with leaseholders and a meeting on the U.S. Customs project and more meetings with local businesspeople to push for RST’s “Fly Local” campaign, a program requesting that local businesses agree to choose RST for their travel when ticket prices (within $300) and flight windows (within four hours of other airports) make it a reasonable choice. (More than two dozen businesses have signed up, with the notable exception being Mayo Clinic, who has yet to sign on.)
That upcoming terminal project—a $10.5-million undertaking with funding projected from federal, state, and city sources—will upgrade the U.S. Customs facility (as requested by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) and bring that inside the main terminal, relocate Delta closer to American Airlines, modify the concourse space, and clear space for a third airline.
“This really is an immature airport in its life, and there is a lot more to come, a lot more growth,” says Reed. “That next level of maturity is right here, just waiting to happen.”
At a smaller airport, employees do it all
9:20 a.m.: The first of the day’s eight commercial flights, an American Airlines Embraer ERJ 145, is inbound from Chicago, a few minutes late because of that early fog.
The three women taking tickets and checking in passengers for that 9:50 a.m. outbound flight—the ones who when they take your ticket look like the typical proper and professional ticket-takers—hustle through a back door, slip on ear protection headphones and neon yellow vests over their American uniforms, and make their way onto the tarmac to meet the landing Embraer.
There, they pick up sets of orange sticks—they’re technically called “aviation wands”—to signal the pilot with approved hand signals like “Slow down” (wands at the sides and making upward and downward fanning motions) and “Stop engines” (left wand down, right wand makes slashing gesture across throat).
Crew members remove garbage from inside the plane and restock drinks and attach the hose that removes lavatory waste.
They unload luggage onto the luggage trailer, drive the luggage cart inside the terminal, load the luggage onto the carousel.
Not to demystify this, but the area behind the carousel is disappointing. I had, secretly, hoped it was a giant labyrinth of bigger carousels, like something you’d see in a Dr. Seuss movie or like the giant network of doors in Monsters, Inc. It is, in fact, just a small garage where they park the luggage trailer.
One of those women from American drives the cart that backs the plane away from the walkway. Then the three women unvest and make their way back to the American desk to check in passengers for the outbound flight to Chicago.
The pilot and copilot and flight attendant grab a quick breakfast and head back to the plane.
American runs four flights per day to and from Chicago, and it’s the same drill over at Delta, which runs one flight to and from Atlanta and three to and from Minneapolis daily.
Flying Sun Country? Don’t be surprised to see the American crew, with temporary signage at the check-in desk.
‘This is the kind of thing that we never hope to use’
Firefighter Robbie Veldhuisen sits behind the wheel of Rescue 3, the Oshkosh Striker 1500, and practices using the coolest thing you hope you never have to use in anything but training.
Veldhuisen deftly manipulates a joystick to control a snozzle, a long device attached to the end of a boom on the fire truck. The snozzle—and he’s practicing here on a piece of metal attached to a steel base 10 feet off the ground on a back section of airport property—is designed to puncture the outer skin of an aircraft and, once inside, release up to 1,500 gallons of water or foam or some combination inside a burning aircraft. At up to 750 gallons per minute.
In two weeks, this 25-year-old truck will be replaced by something called the Oshkosh Global Striker, a 36-foot long, 62,000-pound fire and rescue vehicle with off-road capabilities. The new truck cost $852,000 and will serve as the primary response vehicle of the department’s three-truck fleet.
“This is the kind of thing that we never hope to use, but we’ll certainly be glad we have it if we need it,” says Airport Fire Chief and Maintenance Supervisor Troy Reed, who’s been with the department since 1998.
This type of rescue training would not be part of one of the 30 or so typical calls that the five-person Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting (ARFF) team responds to per year.
ARFF fire responses—and services are available from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week—usually center around medical calls for passengers or the occasional overheating of an airplane brake system.
The last crash, here, was in December of 2012, when a small Cessna, after missing the runway in dense fog, bounced and flipped end-over-end before coming to rest, upside down, in a farm field. Two of the four people onboard were injured. The last fatal crash was June of 2010, when three people were killed when a private plane went down just north of the airport. A bomb scare shut down the airport for part of a day in March of 2011.
‘Every day is something new’
Right now, one of RST’s 10 maintenance staffers is on day two of simply mowing around the airport’s hundreds of runway lights—16 hours of driving in tight circles—as part of the continuous upkeep of the nearly 700 landscaped acres. In the sprawling maintenance warehouse just northwest of the main terminal, airport maintenance tech Art Klenner stands surrounded by more than a dozen pieces of large equipment, from street sweepers to rollover plows to road graders to the kind of snow removal equipment that can throw snow 100 feet or so. Every member of the maintenance crew has a Class B driver’s license to operate any of the vehicles, and that’s often where you’ll find them, mowing those 700 acres or mending the seven miles of security fence or moving tons of snow.
Out on one of the runways, Matt Steffen and Alex Olson are replacing one of RST’s thousands of light bulbs. This one is set flush in the concrete in the center of the 9,033-foot-long primary runway (named 13-31, because it aligns on the compass with 130 degrees and 310 degrees). Runway 02-20 spans 7,300 feet long by 150 feet wide.
“There is always a big checklist of things that need to get done, from patching runways to keeping our vehicle fleet running,” says Klenner. “Every day is something new.”
‘Like the Ritz-Carlton’
Troy Case describes Signature Flight Support, the business that services all of RST’s noncommercial flights, as “like the Ritz-Carlton.”
“We are trying to provide that level of customer service,” says Case, Signature’s station manager, the one who is connected to his phone “24-7” in order to assure customized customer service regardless of the request or the hour. “Like us, the Ritz-Carlton is known for reaching out and meeting high-level customer expectations.”
With 110 worldwide locations, Signature Flight Support is known more as a high-end general aviation option, the kind of flight operation you might find in Boca Raton or Barcelona, Scottsdale or Aberdeen, Scotland (where they cater to the jet-set golf set).
With 8,000 “operations” a year (meaning a landing or takeoff), Signature’s RST location clearly caters to the Mayo Clinic crowd.
“We want to provide the same level of service to the single engine Cessna from Preston and the 747 from Saudi Arabia,” says Case, though he says “the lion’s share of our business is heavy to super heavy jets, $10-million jets and up.”
Right now, a dozen or so aircraft are parked either in or near Signature’s two hangars, one of which, at 20,000 square feet, can house anything up to a Gulfstream IV (the 90-foot-long jet with a 77-foot wingspan).
Case repeatedly warns us not to photograph or even mention the tail numbers of the planes on site. Not to take any photos that could reveal, say, a paint scheme which could make a plane recognizable. You get the feeling he’d rather we not even look at them.
It’s like the scene in This Is Spinal Tap when Nigel is showing off his guitar collection.
So, naturally, I input every tail number into www.planeflighttracker.com. If you do that, over just a day or two, you’ll find a plane registered to a recognizable athlete with Mayo ties. A plane leased to one of the richest men in a small East Asian country. A plane rented by a lawyer whose name you may know. A weekly Federal Medical Center flight.
“If you can afford your own $50 million jet to fly you around, there are different expectations than a person paying $250 to fly commercial,” says Case.
And those expectations may include everything from restaurant reservations to airplane detailing to clients who demand an odd-numbered room on an odd-numbered floor and the same, specific catered meal delivered to their door on an odd hour.
Roughly half of Signature’s 26 Rochester employees provide “front line service” (meeting and greeting passengers), and these are, when you think about it, Rochester’s receptionists for the high-end crowd. And it goes both ways.
“If we recommend a restaurant or entertainment or transportation or make a hotel reservation, and there is a service failure, that comes back to us,” says Case.
At least one Signature staffer is onsite at all times, which is required by the organization’s master lease with the airport. Also, Signature serves as the refueling point for helicopters, which includes Mayo One’s 24-hour flight schedule.
What brings you to Rochester?’ may not be the most appropriate way to start a conversation
Tom Karabatsos (or his brother, Jimmy) opens 331 Express every morning at 4:30 and stays until last flight out, normally 7:30 p.m. or so. Which would seem like a long day to anyone except the Karabatsos brothers, a pair of Chicago natives who owned the original 331 Bar and Grill, formerly The Hangar, now the Ground Round, from 2009 until 2012.
“When we had the big 331 restaurant, the concession stand came up for a bid on the contract and we bid on it,” says Tom, who has 40 years in the restaurant business. “Since the main restaurant is gone, this is the only restaurant we run. I like the fact that I’m home early evening with my wife.”
They start serving drinks at 8 a.m.
“We’re here to serve people in many ways,” says Karabatsos. “People are often nervous and often alone, and we make them feel welcome. I love the variety of the clientele because we get people from all over the world. You meet people from different cultures, different backgrounds, different dietary needs. We try to accommodate and learn from them so we don’t make any mistakes that would offend them in their culture. That part I enjoy.”
He’s standing in front of a wall of magnets, mementos from Athens, Georgia and Athens, Greece and Pisa, Italy and a Boston bar called the Wicked Pissah. Passengers drop the magnets off to Tom and Jimmy.
While Karabatsos has long known how to make one of the best Chicago-style hot dogs you’ll ever eat (trust us), he says the airport experience has been “very educational.”
“Right away,” he says, “ I learned that ‘What brings you to Rochester?’ may not be the most appropriate way to start a conversation. I only made that mistake once.”
Also, he says, as one of the first contacts many visitors have to the city, he’s learned to respect and appreciate people from all cultures and to try and show that respect.
“In many Middle Eastern communities, you don’t touch women,” he says. “When you are giving change, normally the idea is to put the change right in a hand. In this situation we lay it on the counter and say ‘Thank you.’ What we experience and learn here at the airport is something the entire community could benefit from.”
‘What happens out here is important to the community’
That message from Karabatsos is exactly the message that Rochester International Airport is trying so hard to convey, says Tiana Rossow, RST’s marketing and communication manager.
“This is what we’re all about here, and we really want to get that message out,” says Rossow, a self-proclaimed travel junkie who has accompanied us on every step of the airport tour. With an attention to detail that seems to match her unabashed excitement for airport operations, Rossow seems like an accountant-turned-marketer, which she is. With RST’s new, ramped-up focus on community involvement, Rossow’s job has evolved from “accountant who occasionally helped with marketing” to “marketing person who still does accounting.”
“We have so many great things happening out here, and we would love to let Rochester see that and continue to become a part of that growth,” she says. “We are regularly a part of Chamber meetings and CVB activities and Journey To Growth and the DMC. We know that what happens out here is important to the community.”
It’s that new airport mentality, that new approach, that RST’s administration hopes, in Airport Director John Reed’s words, “will simply let people know how important this airport is to our community.”
“There is just so much that takes place out here that people don’t realize,” he says. “So many people working so hard because it means so much to the economic vitality of our area.”
A new day
Wednesday, 2:28 a.m.: Jon Bowman, with clear skies and no threat of fog, unlocks the doors on the FedEx Ship Center and begins the prep work for that Boeing 757—the one from Memphis belly-loaded with 14 containers holding 45,000 pounds of FedEx freight, including that pepperoni for Hormel and that computer equipment for IBM and those specimens for The Mayo Medical Lab.