It’s one of the most valuable pieces of Mankato property that few people routinely see.

The Mankato Airport has always been a key to economic development and quality of life in the area. Now, thanks to the completion of a major runway expansion and related improvements, the facility northeast of the city is poised to become even more vital.

The two-year project to extend the runway 1,200 feet — to 6,600 feet — cost $12 million, a large majority of which was paid for with federal and state funds.

It tops off a decade of improvements, including a new terminal and additional hangars.

The prize everyone hopes for is for regular passenger service at the airport. With Twin Cities’ airports more congested and with Mankato’s continued growth, getting passenger service is not far-fetched. The Mankato Airport, in fact, had a strong passenger service in the 1970s, serving nearly 3,000 passengers per month.

Deregulation caused airlines to retrench and Mankato lost its service. An effort to regain passenger service several years ago came to a grinding halt when 9/11 devastated the airline industry.

The new runway will position the airport for future passenger service. It can handle any passenger jet with a single aisle — as large as a Boeing 757.

The improvement also positions the airport to capture air cargo business. With land near the airport available for warehouse space and with improvements to nearby Highway 14, a cargo facility for firms such as UPS, FedEx or DHL, is a real possibility.

But the improvements are a benefit no matter what. The airport, with nearly 70 hangar spaces, is a busier place than most people know, serving a steady stream of student pilots, and private, commercial and corporate jets. With congestion and high hangar-rental costs in the Twin Cities, jet owners from the metro area are increasingly basing their planes in Mankato.

The city’s incremental, well-planned improvements in the airport over the past decade will bring benefits for decades to come.

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