ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) ¿ Officials at St. Cloud Regional Airport hope to lure more flights, but the tough economic times are making that challenging.

The airport, built in 1995, recently completed a nearly $5 million terminal expansion. Airport officials say St. Cloud can now serve as a reliever airport to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Talk of expanding the airport heated up after a 2003 study reviewed what are called "tier-two airports" that feed into the Twin Cities airport.

The Federal Aviation Authority, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, and several other agencies and airports wanted to help ease traffic congestion into the metro area. Airports in Duluth, Rochester, and Eau Claire, Wis., are tier-two airports in the region. Bill Towle, director of the St. Cloud airport, says the study added St. Cloud.

"Being defined as a tier-two airport, in that study, it also talked about St. Cloud becoming the reliever to the Twin Cities, or the likely reliever to the Twin Cities," Towle said. "Then, of course, becoming the second largest airport in the state of Minnesota, so (for example) on a much smaller scale, a Midway to an O'Hare, but obviously a much smaller scale than that."

Towle said the committee found the St. Cloud airport has the greatest potential as a tier-two airport. It's just 72 miles from the Twin Cities airport, and it's located in one of the fastest growing areas in the state.

Yet because it's a relatively new and small airport, St. Cloud needed to catch up to the larger tier-two airports. The airport's check-in area could only fit about 30 people. With the expansion, it has a security checkpoint area that can fit 200 people, along with office space for the Transportation Security Administration.

Towle said he's trying to find another airline to fly out of St. Cloud. He tried Southwest Airlines, which just began flying into Minneapolis-St. Paul, but Southwest won't fly into airports with fewer than eight flights a day.

Towle also is hoping a carrier would fly from St. Cloud to places other than Minneapolis, such as Detroit, Chicago, or Las Vegas. For now, Towle said it'll be up to Delta Air Lines to stimulate more travel from St. Cloud by adding flights.

Delta spokeswoman Tammy Lee Stanoch says adding to the current four flights a day into St. Cloud is not on the table right now, since air travel is down in St. Cloud and around the country.

Right now, more than 80 percent of the air passengers from the St. Cloud area drive to Minneapolis and fly out of the Twin Cities airport, according to Tom Moore, president of the St. Cloud Area Economic Development Partnership. Moore said the airport needs to capture more of those travelers.

Sun Country Airlines flies into the airport only once every three weeks. Moore said if Sun Country would come in more frequently, then that would boost the number of passengers in St. Cloud.

"We can increase that number and be able to begin to be on the radar for other airline companies that would be interested in expanding," he said. "Again, we have been trying to do this for the last four or five years."

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Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, http://www.mpr.org

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