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Rapid City airport receives $1 million federal grant to create connection to San Francisco

The departures entrance to the Rapid City Regional Airport.
Rapid City Regional Airport
The departures entrance to the Rapid City Regional Airport.

Rapid City Regional Airport has been awarded a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop a flight to the San Francisco Bay area.

The grant, which the airport said will be matched by over $550,000 in local donations and non-monetary contributions, comes from the department’s Small Community Air Service Development Program.

The grant is a revenue guarantee, which means it will go toward offsetting the initial financial losses the airport will face to get its new connection running.

According to Rapid City Regional Airport’s Executive Director Patrick Dame, it will likely be at least a few years before the service to San Francisco is operational. A current nationwide shortage of pilots and flight crews could also extend this timeline.

The Small Community Air Service Development Program helps airports create new services and restart old ones. Rapid City Regional Airport used to have a connection to San Francisco through United Airlines, but the service was stopped during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As they were having to make decisions with COVID under what they could continue to do, that one, you know, came up as being one that probably wasn't performing as well as some of their more legacy routes like Denver,” Dame said.

According to Dame, this renewed connection to the San Francisco area will offer a mix of both business and tourism travel.

Brook Kaufman, the CEO of Visit Rapid City, said the tourism generated by this connection will be vital for the Rapid City area.

“Having that diversified mix of visitors in an area is super critical to the long-term sustainability and success, but tourism is certainly a driver obviously in our area,” Kaufman said.

The fact that the new service is a direct connection will be one of the biggest draws, according to Kaufman.

“Nonstop flights matter to our guests,” Kaufman said. “Oftentimes it's the difference between somebody choosing or not choosing, so anytime we can get a direct flight like that is going to be super important to that leisure segment.”

The Rapid City Regional Airport has previously received three Small Community Air Service Development Program grants. One grant went toward starting a direct flight to Phoenix. Another grant helped start a direct flight to Atlanta, but that connection stopped operating during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the past few years, Rapid City Regional Airport has seen an increase in passengers. According to Dame, this is partly due to the airport starting new services and connections.

“We really pushed hard on air service development, meeting with new airlines, and trying to add new services into Rapid City,” Dame said.

In 2016, the airport had about 270,000 outgoing passengers. That number rose to a record-breaking 351,000 in 2019. COVID-19 caused a decrease in 2020, but Dame said the airport recovered in 2021 with 348,000 outgoing passengers, which he expects to increase going forward.

Andrew Kronaizl is a senior at Augustana University. He is from Vermillion, SD, and is based out of SDPB's Sioux Falls studio.