What’s happening to our airport?

Park wherever you want. Grab another beer at Chili’s. There’s no rush. You’ve got time now at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Just look around: There are many fewer passengers here than there were just five years ago—millions, in fact. By the end of 2010, fewer people were flying through MSP than in the 1990s, and not just because of the recession. The 13th busiest airport in the world a decade ago, it’s now fallen out of the top 30.

While it would be convenient to blame Delta, the slide actually began six years ago, when Northwest still dominated the terminals. But what began as a dip now appears to be a trench, and Delta may not be helpful in digging out. The Twin Cities are unlikely to ever be as important to Delta, whose primary hub is Atlanta, as they were to Northwest. Since Delta took over, its percentage of passenger traffic at MSP has slid while other airlines, such as Southwest, have expanded their presence, though not enough to make up the difference.

Still, airlines are businesses. And if Minnesotans were clamoring to fly, Delta—or any other airline—would surely accommodate them. Which suggests that larger forces may be at work. The airport’s peak year was 2004, which is also the year that Minnesota peaked in the state rankings of per-capita income. We were flying high, then, so to speak. And as our economic engines have cooled, perhaps no one should be surprised that we don’t get around much anymore.

For more on the status of Delta and Minnesota airlines, read “Delta Blues” and “Remembering the Red Tails.”