When Toby Myers tells people around Burlington he works at the airport, they often respond with “Cedar Rapids or Des Moines?”

But Myers works at the Southeast Iowa Regional Airport on Summer Street in Burlington.

“People forget that there is a high- quality airport right here,” said Myers, who is manager of Jet Air, the fixed-base operator providing general aviation services at the airport.

However, despite the seeming lack of attention, the airport served 14,898 commercial service passengers in 2017, a 14 percent increase from 2016, according to Airport Director Mary Beaird.

Broken down, that means 7,658 people got on a plane and 7,239 people got off a plane at the Southeast Iowa Regional Airport in 2017.

Total operations, or the number of general and commercial aviation takeoffs and landings at the airport, reached 4,396 in 2017, a 5 percent increase from 2016.

Beaird credited commercial airline Air Choice One for the increase. The U.S. Department of Transportation recently awarded Air Choice One, which provides services through the federally subsidized Essential Air Service program, a four-year contract with Southeast Iowa Regional Airport, through January 2022.

The airline offers two daily flights to Chicago O’Hare International Airport, two daily flights to St. Louis Lambert Airport and a weekday flight to Minneapolis/ St. Paul.

In November 2017, Air Choice One added more weekend flights to Chicago.

“I think they are really well received,” said Beaird. “Our weekend flights seem to be full. We are still trying to get the word out and communicate that we have weekend flights.”

A $333,000 contribution from the Iowa DOT and a $14,500 match from the Southeast Iowa Regional Airport Authority totaled $347,500 spent on projects at the airport in 2017, said Beaird.

That number includes an annual $35,000 for marketing, a $262,500 Iowa DOT grant for the completion of a corporate hangar and improvements toward airfield ramp lighting, runway 18/36 air field regulator and the airport beacon.

In 2018, planned projects include an Iowa DOT-funded $131,000 phase I terminal remodel, a $1 million construction-phase apron rehabilitation, and $130,000 design-phase runway 18/36 reconstruction. Of $1.2 million needed for the latter two projects, the Federal Aviation Administration will cover about $1 million and the SIRAA will cover $115,981.

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Paying for infrastructure improvements would become much easier if the airport could improve its enplanement number, currently at 7,659 in 2017. If the airport can get that number up to 10,000 per year, it would earn $1 million in federal funds to use toward infrastructure projects. Currently, Beaird said the airport receives $150,000 in federal funds based on its current enplanement numbers.

It’s a lofty goal, though. Beaird said the Southeast Iowa Regional Airport has not had 10,000 or more commercial enplanements per year since before Sept. 11, 2001.

As Beaird and Myers attempt to raise these numbers, they’ll have other challenges to face, including a looming pilot shortage.

About 30,000 major airline pilots will retire this year, and young people are not becoming pilots, said Myers. Many pilots from small, regional airports likely will move to employment at bigger airlines that can offer enticing wages and benefits the private sector can’t offer.

Myers attributed this lack of interest from young people to the belief a career in flying is expensive and requires a college degree. However, he said those interested in becoming a pilot can learn to fly right at Southeast Iowa Regional Airport.

“That is being lost in society today,” said Myers. “Mary and I both see it. We used to be busier. We used to have more pilots. So, we have to get that back in front of the schools, and we’re doing that.”

The airport offers a variety of personal flight training courses year-round. Myers said students work at their own pace, but many get their commercial rating in a year and a half.

Myers said the airport plays a vital role in industry in Burlington, as he often sees business people, such as the CEO of the Iowa fertilizer plant, use the airport to fly in and out quickly in private jets.

Everyone can take advantage of that convenience though, said Beaird and Myers.

“If you go to one of the big majors you have be stuck there two, three, four hours before you fly in, fly out,” said Myers. “Here it’s quick, it’s easy, it’s economical.”