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Essential Air Service struggles in some towns, soars elsewhere

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. - Commercial airline service is approaching cruising altitude in Devils Lake, but it remains all but grounded in Thief River Falls, Minn., where the community continues to struggle with airline reliability.Commercial airline pas...

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – Commercial airline service is approaching cruising altitude in Devils Lake, but it remains all but grounded in Thief River Falls, Minn., where the community continues to struggle with airline reliability.

Commercial airline passengers – counting those both arriving and leaving – totaled 5,104 in Devils Lake in 2015. That's nearly double the number in 2013, and a 76.7 percent increase over 2014.

"We're moving in the right direction," said John Nord, Devils Lake Regional Airport manager. "We had our busiest December ever with more than 600 passengers."

Meanwhile, Thief River Falls Regional Airport continues to fly against a strong economic headwind.

Unofficially, just 2,127 people flew in or out of Thief River Falls in 2015, according to airport records. That's barely half the number the airport recorded in 2013.


Even though ridership was low last year, it pales in comparison to the 734 passengers in 2014, when Thief River Falls was without commercial passenger service from February through September, airport manager Joe Hedrick said.

"Our service has been kind of trending down for a decade or more," Hedrick said. "I've been attributing that to poor service, whether that's due to mechanical issues, routing or staffing."

Small airports, regional airlines

Several small airports in North Dakota and Minnesota, including Devils Lake, Jamestown, N.D., and Thief River Falls, have struggled with commercial airlines much of the past five years since Delta and Mesaba airlines stopped serving the cities.

The airports are part of the federal Department of Transportation's Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes airlines to provide commercial passenger service to connect smaller airports with medium-size and large hubs.

EAS funding comes from two sources: overflight fees, those charged to all foreign aircraft flying over U.S. soil; and congressional discretionary appropriations, which come from user fees charged to each passenger ticket.

When Delta and Mesaba bowed out, Great Lakes Aviation, a regional airline based in Cheyenne, Wyo., submitted successful bids for the service to the three cities, as well as for Brainerd, Minn., Watertown S.D., Mason City and Fort Dodge, Iowa, and Iron Mountain, Mich.


However, Great Lakes' record has been often unreliable, with frequent schedule delays and canceled flights since the airline first started serving the region in 2012.

Devils Lake's total passenger count dropped dramatically from 5,488 in 2011 to 2,998 in 2012, 2,667 in 2013 and 2,889 in 2014, according to the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission.

Jamestown had a similar slide, from 5,689 in 2011 to 3,861 in 2012 and to 2,672 in 2013, before rebounding to 3,788 in 2014.

Cloudy conditions

Thief River Falls had 4,792 passengers in 2011, when the city was served by Mesaba Airlines. That number increased to 5,699 in 2012, when the transition from Mesaba to Great Lakes occurred. However, just 4,175 passengers flew with Great Lakes in 2013.

Great Lakes suspended service to Thief River Falls between February and September 2014, when the annual total plummeted to 734.

Great Lakes has been struggling with a pilot shortage since a federal law took effect in 2013 that requires regional airline first officers – co-pilots – to have 1,500 hours of flying time, rather than 250 hours under previous regulations.


Since then, the airline has stopped providing local air service to about 20 of the 48 cities, including Watertown, that it served before the law went into effect, according to a report in Wyoming media. Watertown Regional Airport remains without commercial service.

Great Lakes resumed service to Thief River Falls in 2014 only after it obtained a new operating certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration that allowed the company to reduce the number of seats in its aircraft from 19 to 9. That reduction allowed the airline to hire pilots with less than the new minimum flying standard.

When Great Lakes' contracts were set to expire in 2014, all three cities invited other airlines to submit bids.

Western connection

SkyWest Airlines, headquartered in St. George, Utah, won the contract for Devils Lake and Jamestown, while Great Lakes was the lone bidder for Thief River Falls.

It also serves, in partnership with Delta Airlines, the Minnesota EAS airports of Bemidji, Brainerd, Chisholm/Hibbing and International Falls, with connections to Minneapolis.

Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport had been part of the EAS program for several years, as its passenger numbers skyrocketed during the most recent western North Dakota oil boom. The airport's annual passenger total increased from 5,403 in 2006 to 58,843 in 2014, before dropping to 41,846 last year. The EAS contract ended in 2013.


SkyWest, which operates in Devils Lake and Jamestown under a partnership with United Express, provides 50-passenger jet service between Devils Lake and Denver flying seven days a week for a total of 11 round trips. Afternoon flights are nonstop, while others make stops in Jamestown.

Ridership has been increasing steadily since the airline arrived in the city in mid-2014.

"I attribute it to the direct jet service to Denver," Nord said. "Our numbers dropped in half when Delta left."

Delta had provided jet service to Minneapolis-St. Paul with stops in Grand Forks.

New suitors

With Great Lakes' contract set to expire in July, the Thief River Falls Airport Authority solicited other airlines to submit bids late last year.

At least two regional commuter airlines – San Francisco-based Boutique Air and Air Choice No. 1, based in the St. Louis area -- have indicated they intended to vie for the service, airport manager Hedrick said.


The deadline for submitting proposals was Friday.

Thief River Falls also commissioned a study to determine the extent of the airport's lost passenger service potential.

The study, conducted by Mead and Hunt, a firm from Coppell, Texas, determined that Thief River Falls was capturing just 3 percent of the potential inbound and outbound air travelers in its prime market area, or true market estimate in 2015.

Rather than Thief River Falls, 38 percent of the airport's potential passengers were flying in or out of Fargo's Hector International Airport, while 30 percent were using Grand Forks International Airport. Another 25 percent were flying out of Minneapolis/St. Paul International, with 4 percent using Bemidji Regional Airport.

"We would like to capture some of that business," Hedrick said. "But we have to have reliable service."

Airport improvements

Nord said Devils Lake's passenger numbers would have been higher in 2015 had it not been for equipment malfunctions that forced cancellation for some flights - twice for a week at a time.


The FAA installed a new Automated Weather Observation Station in November.

"It as an obsolete system," Nord said. "Pilots have to know what the weather conditions are in order to land or fly out of the airport."

The Devils Lake airport also has made significant improvements in recent years.

The federal grants were $8.3 million to extend the main runway by 1,826 feet to 6,400 feet, $743,000 for a new aircraft rescue and firefighting fire truck, $528,367 for a runway safety area construction project and $85,000 to develop a new wildlife hazard assessment and wildlife management plan.

All four grants provided 90 percent federal funding, with the state and city splitting the remaining 10 percent.

Looking for more

The improvements, plus the jet service to Denver, have raised the Devils Lake airport's profile in the region.

Nord said Devils Lake is becoming competitive with other airports in the region – Grand Forks is about 90 miles to the east and Minot is 120 miles to the west.

As of this past week, a round-trip ticket between Devils Lake and Denver was $262 if purchased about three weeks in advance. That's about half the cost of Grand Forks-to-Denver flights.

In addition, Devils Lake offers free airport parking, he said.

"We are catching on with some of the folks who are outside of our market area, from Grand Forks, Rugby and Minot areas," Nord said, adding the Devils Lake-Denver route is particularly popular with UND hockey fans, who normally fill the planes when the Fighting Hawks play in Colorado.

"Things are going well," Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson said. "But for some reason, many people from here still drive to Grand Forks. Our biggest challenge is to get our local people to fly out of here. Hopefully, we can convince them to look here first."

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