Airline drops flights to small cities in the region

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Great Lakes Airlines is dropping air service to six smaller cities around the region, blaming the service cuts on an industry-wide pilot shortage.

MPR News reported the cities losing regular flights to and from Minneapolis-St. Paul include Thief River Falls in Minnesota; Devils Lake and Jamestown, North Dakota; Fort Dodge and Mason City, Iowa; and Ironwood, Michigan. The Wyoming-based airline also effectively shuttered its hub in Minneapolis. Customers with flights booked in any of the six airports will be given refunds.

The loss of the service is troubling to the smaller cities. The Associated Press said the Great Lakes service represent the only commercial airline flights available in Fort Dodge. The Mason City Globe Gazette reports that Great Lakes had recently reduced its Mason City flight schedule from four flights a day to two a day to try to keep the service viable. Great Lakes' contract with the northern Iowa city was due to expire in April. Requests for proposals from other airlines to serve Mason City will be sent out this month by the federal Department of Transportation.

Two years ago, when Delta Airlines ended service to Mason City with its Mesaba flights, the DOT put out requests for proposals and Great Lakes received the contract over three other competitors.

"There will be no service for the next two months," said Pam Osgood, manager of the Mason City Municipal Airport. "It's important for the public to know we are doing everything we can to keep commercial air service here."

The Thief River Falls Times reported that Great Lakes Airlines blames the service interruption on a federal law that began in August and requires pilots at small airlines to have 1,500 hours of experience. That's an increase from a previous requirement of 500 hours. Immediately following the implementation of the new law, Great Lakes maintained its regular flight schedule, but as the airline began losing pilots to larger carriers, more flights had to be cancelled.

In a statement, Great Lakes CEO Charles Howell explained, "Due to the unintended consequences of the new mandated pilot regulatory requirements, the company feels it is in the best interest of our customers, communities and employees to suspend service from these stations until we are able to rebuild our staff of pilots in order to provide reliable service."

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