Duluth News Tribune By Candace Renalls
It’s a big year for Monaco Air Duluth, the general aviation hub at the Duluth International Airport.
The company is building a new $4 million terminal that will triple its space, raise its profile and provide the high-end amenities that executives, dignitaries and celebrities who make stops in Duluth in private planes expect during their travels.
That, combined with an expansion for U.S. Customs quarters at Monaco Air, positions the general aviation terminal for future growth for flights not served at the airport’s main passenger terminal.
And it’s all happening as Monaco Air this month marks 10 years in Duluth.
As the airport’s fixed-base operator, Monaco Air provides fueling, maintenance and de-icing services to corporate, foreign, military, charter and personal planes that stop in Duluth in addition to providing respite for passengers and crews. And since Duluth is an international port of entry, it provides U.S. Customs clearance on site for those international flights.
The base handles 300 to 400 technical stops a year. About 60 percent are international flights, with most coming from Europe enroute to the American Southwest, according to owners Don Monaco and Mike Magni.
“We try to do them in less than 20 minutes, very similar to a NASCAR pit stop,” Magni said of their quick turnaround work on planes.
With Duluth’s proximity to the Canadian border, Monaco Air sees opportunities to draw more international flights. The most direct flight route between Europe and the American Southwest passes right over Duluth.
“‘We’re the first stop coming from London,” Magni said. “There are plenty of stops in Canada, but they’re off the circle route with a greater flight range.”
With the construction of the new terminal, the owners hope to boost their international business and draw more domestic flight stops to Duluth. And with more space, they will be able to accommodate several aircraft arrivals at the same time.
“We will have a much more inviting, comfortable environment for passengers and crew,” Monaco said. “We expect to grow as a result.”
The first 10 years
It all began in 2005 when Don Monaco, a retired Chicago businessman with a passion for aviation, took over as the airport’s fixed-base operator, buying North Country Aviation and renaming it Monaco Air Duluth.
He soon expanded to round-the-clock service, remodeled the 1970s-era building, promoted the brand, added a concierge service and diversified. Staff has grown from 20 to nearly 30 employees, including aircraft mechanics, fuelers, baggage handlers, and office and customer service staff.
Monaco Air also fuels and does maintenance on the commercial airliners that serve the airport’s main terminal. It fuels Cirrus jets, FedEx planes and the Air Canada airliners that undergo maintenance at nearby AAR Aircraft Services. It handles Sun Country and Allegiant Air charters at the main terminal, from the passenger check-in to the aircraft handling. The company also rents hangars and is a certified Cessna and Cirrus aircraft service center.
“They do a fair amount of service work for us when we’re too busy to handle it,” said Bill King, Cirrus’ vice president of business administration. “As time goes on, the plan is to shift a significant amount of our service work over to them to more efficiently use our space here. And they have done wonderful work. It’s a wonderful operation there.They do first-class work.”
Over the past 10 years, Monaco’s business has fluctuated with the industry. It has lost revenue with reduced airline service at the main terminal, fewer transient military flights and fewer recreational flights since the recession. But its corporate business has steadily increased, and Cirrus and AAR-associated work has filled the gap, Monaco said.
While Monaco Air owns its facilities, it leases the land from the Duluth Airport Authority in a contract good for 25 more years. Besides rent, Monaco Air pays concession fees — a percentage of its revenues from landing fees, per-use fees and hangar rentals — annually to the airport authority. The total paid has grown substantially from the $90,000 North County Aviation was paying 10 years ago.
While totals figures were unavailable, the concessions fees alone increased from $139,500 in 2006 to nearly $171,000 in 2014. Through August of this year, the concession fees totaled $111,000, according to the authority’s financial records.
Construction of the new 9,600-square-foot executive terminal designed by DSGW Architects began in May on the site of a razed hangar bay attached to the existing building. With windows going in and the start of finishing work, it’s on track for a February completion. Monaco Air is paying for its own project with a loan from Republic Bank.
When complete, Monaco Air Duluth will provide an impressive entry to Duluth for general aviation, similar to the first impression the airport’s James L. Oberstar passenger terminal makes on commercial airline travelers.
“I couldn’t be more supportive of what they’re trying to do with the design and look,” said Tom Werner, the airport authority’s executive director. “It has a different feel than a typical (fixed-base operator) with a pilot’s lounge and cramped waiting area. This is completely different. A business traveler can stop in and wait in comfort for the next flight or for their aircraft to be serviced and fueled. So this is completely different from a lot of airports in Minnesota. Hopefully, it will attract attention to Duluth.”
Monaco Air’s new spacious customer lounge and a fireplace will rise two stories high and have large windows facing the airstrip with a catwalk overlooking it all. Three seating areas will accommodate passengers from several planes at one time. The building’s numerous windows will bring in natural light. It will have a catering kitchen, a flight-planning room, two conference rooms, a crew lounge, a fitness room and more.
“There are spaces on the main level for customers and passengers of the flights, but then there are spaces on the second floor for the pilots to relax and to plan their next stage of navigation,” said Julie Spiering, who heads DSGW’s interior design team. “They’re going to have a spectacular conference room on the second floor.”
The inspiration for the building’s design came from aeronautics, Monaco’s brand and the area’s natural environment, she said.
Quality materials will be used throughout, including local bluestone in the fireplace, reclaimed timber for the mantel and granite topping the reception desk.
“The rustic character of all that will be contrasted with aeronautical brushed aluminum, polished cork and more refined finishes,” Spiering said. “It’s a play on two very different themes and using really high-quality materials to reflect the quality of the brand.”
She noted that an interior hall from the parking lot will have a backlit frosted glass wall with a design showing the flight paths around the world.
“They wanted to hint at the globalness of their clientele,” she said.
When the new building is completed and staff is moved in, the current two-story, 4,000-square-foot terminal will be gutted and remodeled. When complete a few months later, U.S Customs space will occupy the first floor, while second-floor space will be leased to aviation-related groups.
“It’s going to be fantastic,” King said. “What a wonderful addition to the airport and to the field. They will be able to increase capabilities in everything they do.”
Said Monaco, “We always strived to provide exceptional service, but we did it in a modest facility. Now we will have a new facility to match that service.”