Kayla Wildes was training to be a flight attendant in March when the pandemic grounded her career plans. With more free time on her hands, she saw a good time to learn to fly.
Commercial flights may be down due to COVID-19. But two small airports in the metro are unexpectedly bustling thanks in part to a soaring interest in flying lessons.
"I don't know if I would have had that opportunity if I was working full time," said Wildes, 27, of Prior Lake, who's now aiming to be a commercial pilot.
Flying Cloud in Eden Prairie and Anoka County-Blaine, two reliever airports in the Metropolitan Airports Commission network, are seeing a spike in activity as pilots and aspiring pilots brush up on skills, earn a new flying credential or learn to fly a plane for the first time.
"It's been their lifelong dream to learn how to fly and maybe be able to own or rent an airplane down the road," Joe Harris, the commission's director of reliever airports, said in describing many of the new customers.
Several months during the pandemic have seen increases in total operations, which include both takeoffs and landings, compared with last year at the same time. Flying Cloud, in the southwest metro, has seen jumps every month between March and October, with a high point in July of nearly 14,000 operations compared to 12,000 in July 2019.
Anoka County-Blaine saw upticks in July and October. But the most dramatic increase was in September, when operations soared to 7,000 compared with 5,600 in September 2019.
Flying Cloud secured a surprising distinction last spring. On May 12, it was the seventh busiest airport in the country, beating out major hubs like Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
"The airports are booming with flight students," said Nancy Grazzini-Olson, president of both Thunderbird Aviation, which has flight schools at Crystal and Flying Cloud airports, and Academy College in Bloomington, which prepares people for aviation careers. "People are learning to fly, both … for a career and just recreationally."
Trever Rossini, owner of InFlight Pilot Training out of Flying Cloud, said that even as other businesses struggled during the pandemic, the students kept coming.
"It was really strange. Our business didn't slow down at all," he said.
Grazzini-Olson said Thunderbird has seen a 10% increase in students, while Rossini said InFlight has seen a 30% leap since March.
The reason for the added interest seems to be more downtime due to COVID-19.
Some people are working from home and others have reduced hours, and few places are open for entertainment, instructors said.
For others, learning to fly brings a sense of freedom during a stressful time.
"This is almost like an escape for people so they have a little bit of normalcy," Rossini said. "It's really nice to be able to provide it."
Harris noted that flight lessons are just one part of the increased action. More licensed pilots are flying recreationally, too, he said.
Overall, the activity level at the six Metropolitan Airports Commission relievers is similar to last year, Harris said.
But those steady numbers are remarkable, he said, compared with commercial airline hubs like MSP, most of which have seen dramatic decreases in passengers and total operations since COVID-19 arrived.
In September, the latest month for which data are available, the number of passengers at MSP sank to 11.6 million in 2020 compared with just shy of 30 million 2019, a 61% decrease.
During the same period, operations decreased 43%.
During the pandemic, flight schools have been deemed essential and can remain open, Rossini said, since pilots need to keep current on their licensure.
When the shutdown hit last spring, the airport stayed busy because people wanted to finish their lessons or complete whatever certificate they were working on.
Other people began contemplating lessons or pilot licensure as a substitute for flying commercially, or to transport family members who no longer felt safe on airlines, Rossini said.
When nearby colleges with aviation programs — including the University of North Dakota and Minnesota State University, Mankato — shut down, InFlight saw an influx of students, he said.
The average age of his students is the late 20s, Rossini said. But it ranges from high school to 60 years old, he said. "It's not just one demographic," he added.
Both Rossini and Grazzini-Olson said they've had to hire new flight instructors since the pandemic began, and Rossini has brought on four new planes.
The action at the airports has brought other economic benefits, Harris said. With more people and planes comes the need to buy airplane fuel at the airports, visit maintenance shops for repairs and buy items like headsets and radios.
Hangar construction at reliever airports has also surged.
Wildes, the aspiring flight attendant, said learning to fly gives her something to focus on during the pandemic. She feels safe since she's with only one other person in a plane.
While flying recently, Wildes recalled looking out the window and thinking, "I could see myself looking at this for the rest of my life. It's beautiful."
Steve Johnson, 26, is taking lessons with Thunderbird. He plays professional hockey with the Cleveland Monsters, but the season's start has been postponed until February due to COVID-19.
Having already started flying lessons in May 2019, he decided to use his extra free time to work toward his commercial pilot license. He received it this month.
"I'm a pretty productive person. I always want to be doing something," said Johnson, of Excelsior.
Flying is a stress reliever, he said: "When you get up there and you're flying around and you're in control, it's truly therapeutic."
Erin Adler • 612-673-1781