Small towns feel cut off after airline service ends

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Visitors planning a trip to Thief River Falls in northwestern Minnesota will start at a gas station rather than the airport.

The Associated Press has a story about how the termination of daily air service by Great Lakes Airlines is disrupting business in the city of 9,000. Thief River Falls is home to Arctic Cat and Digi-Key Corp., companies that have an international reach. The loss of air service by the regional carrier has been a setback to economic development.

"As a global, $1.5 billion business, travel is essential, especially since we're here in the middle of nowhere," said Digi-Key's corporate communications director Michelle Gjerde.

Great Lakes officials have said they may resume flights as early as June, but with reduced service with flights carrying only nine passengers. The airline blames changes in federal regulations for causing a critical shortage of pilots available to regional airlines.

Thief River Falls is not the only community cut off by Great Lakes. The airline suspended or trimmed service to other small towns, including Jamestown and Devils Lake, North Dakota, Ironwood, Michigan, Pierre and Watertown, South Dakota and Fort Dodge and Mason City, Iowa. The Mason City Globe Gazette, noting that the northern Iowa city has been without commercial service since February when Great Lakes ended service, reported that the airport commission there is awaiting Federal Aviation Administration approval to seek requests from other airlines willing to serve the community.

In Wyoming, the Casper Star-Tribune reported that four of the state’s 10 community airports rely solely on Great Lakes for air service, and the airline has become increasingly unreliable. In March, Great Lakes cancelled 44 percent of all flights at the Sheridan airport and 51 percent at the Worland airport. Cancellations were up to 60 percent at Riverton Regional in March.

Earlier this month, Allegiant Air announced it would end twice-weekly direct service between Rochester and Phoenix on May 14. The Rochester Post Bulletin reported that the Rochester International Airport has $750,000 to try to attract airlines to Rochester.

Meanwhile, the St Cloud Times reported that commercial flights serving the St. Cloud Regional Airport outperformed those across the nation last year in how many airplane seats were filled by paying passengers. The story said that the load rate was 91.9 percent on flights serving St. Cloud, outpacing the national average of 82.8 percent. Allegiant Air flies between the central Minnesota city and Phoenix. United Airlines will start flying twice-daily direct flights between St. Cloud and Chicago O'Hare International Airport starting May 6.

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