Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport officials learned Friday their airport was on a list of 24 small market cities that may lose Delta Airline service.
Airport Manager Steve Sievek said he was informed by phone of the news Friday shortly before the airline publicly announced it would notify the U.S. Department of Transportation of its plan to adjust its flying schedule in the small markets. Delta said the move was being taken in light of the retirement of its Saab fleet and to halt $14 million in annual losses.
“It was a bit surprising in light of the silence (of Delta) ... moving ahead with remodeling in the terminal,” he said. “They’ve been in step with that cooperation with their portion.”
He said Delta officials had indicated Brainerd would likely continue to receive service from a replacement carrier — possibly Great Lakes Airline — if everything goes as planned. He said the switch was being represented by people he talked to as a seamless transition with customers hardly noticing the change.
Sievek, who was out of the office today, said his understanding was that the transition would be completed by Oct. 31. He said passenger numbers have been very consistent and were up 9 percent, year-to-date, this year.
The airport manager said Brainerd was served by a combination of Saab and CRJ 200 aircraft, although in winter months, it’s primarily the Saab airplanes.
He was not certain whether political or civic pressure would have any affect on Delta’s final decision on service. If so, he indicated area leaders might make an effort in that respect.
“I’ll try to find out more and look into that potential,” Sievek said. “We’re going to be raising the same question.”
Airport Commission Chair Beth Pfingsten said she didn’t have much information on Delta’s announcement and that the situation was fluid.
Federal subsidies help pay for flying in 16 of the cities (although not in Brainerd). Other airlines can bid for those subsidies if Delta pulls out. The airline says it will ask for federal subsidies in the other eight cities. It said it can’t afford to keep flying to those cities without a subsidy.
Brainerd’s average passenger occupancy is 53 percent which ranks it in the top 10 of the 24 cities where service may be dropped. The highest occupancy rate is Butte, Mont., with 65 percent and the lowest is Thief River Falls at 12 percent. Bemidji, also on the list, has an occupancy rate of 59 percent.
The Transportation Department solicits bids from airlines to see how much money it would take to get them to serve a particular city. Delta said it is looking for regional haulers, including Great Lakes Aviation, to take over those routes.
Great Lakes operates 19-seat planes, a size that might operate profitably where a larger plane couldn't. A Great Lakes spokeswoman declined to comment on the possibility of taking over the Delta routes.
The Transportation Department can make an airline keep serving a city even after its subsidy contract runs out, spokesman Bill Mosley said.
It's theoretically possible that no airlines would bid to serve a city. "It's very rare," Mosely said. "We would rebid if that were the case."
The city of Bemidji in northwestern Minnesota doesn't currently get a subsidy, but Delta says it wants one to keep flying there. Right now one of Delta's regional feeder partners operates three 50-seat regional jets per day between Bemidji and Delta's hub in Minneapolis, a 4½ hour drive away.
Bemidji illustrates why airlines have historically sought out travelers in small cities. Such flights attract more than their share of business travelers, who tend to pay more. And if their flight starts on Delta, they'll generally stick with Delta all the way to Chicago or New York.
"So they're paying for a bigger ticket somewhere else," said Harold M. Van Leeuwen Jr., the manager of the Bemidji airport. "Bemidji has been a good location for them."
Occupancy on the Bemidji flights was 59 percent last year. Van Leeuwen said he expects that either Delta or some other airline will continue to serve the city.
This story contains information compiled by the Associated Press.
MIKE O’ROURKE may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5860.