WDAY: The News Leader

Published July 16, 2011, 01:52 PM

Delta may drop flights to Hibbing, International Falls

MINNEAPOLIS — Delta Air Lines is shrinking its number of flights to small cities in the nation’s midsection, including Hibbing and International Falls, saying it can’t make money on flights that sometimes are completely empty.

By: Joshua Freed, Associated Press

On Friday, Delta said it would adjust flying to 24 cities, many of which are not served by any other airline. There’s a risk they could lose air service altogether, although some of the routes are likely to be taken over by regional airlines. And Delta said it will ask for a federal subsidy to keep some of the flights.

The affected flights connect Delta’s hubs to small cities in rural Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota,

Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota. Other Minnesota cities included on the list are Thief River Falls, Brainerd and Bemidji.

Most of the affected flights are on Delta’s 34-seat Saab turboprops, which it is phasing out by the end of this year. Higher fuel prices have made it difficult to operate small planes profitably, because the fuel bill is divided among a small number of passengers. Even the next-larger option, the 50-seat regional jets flown by Delta and other airlines, is often unprofitable for the same reason. Delta is retiring many of those planes, too.

Delta said it is losing $14 million a year on the flights included in Friday’s announcement. Their occupancy averaged just 52 percent, compared to a system-wide average of 83 percent last year. The average occupancy out of Thief River Falls, Minn., was just 12 percent, Delta said. Flights from Chisholm-Hibbing Airport average 39 percent full, Delta said, and flights from International Falls average 53 percent occupancy.

Flights in 16 of the cities on Delta’s list are subsidized by the federal Extended Air Service program. 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,” Mosley said. “We would rebid if that were the case.”

Bemidji currently doesn’t get a subsidy, but Delta says it wants one to keep flying there. Right now one of Delta’s regional 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 historically have 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.