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Grand Forks airport officials optimistic after United departure

Grand Forks airport. File photo.

Grand Forks airport officials aren’t dreading the loss of a major carrier last year.

In the first few months after United Airlines pulled out of Grand Forks in early December, passenger boardings here actually increased slightly from the same time period last year. And airport officials said maintaining or improving existing service may be just as important as getting another carrier.

United Airlines began offering direct daily flights to Denver in October 2012. But a year later, the airline announced it would cease its service here because of a poorer than expected financial performance.

Local officials called the announcement disappointing, especially considering the long-term effort in getting direct flights to Denver, a major western hub. Meanwhile, Devils Lake and Jamestown added SkyWest flights to Denver earlier this month.

But Grand Forks officials remain upbeat about the airport’s performance, and noted that passenger levels are up despite having one fewer carrier. Between December 2013 and March 2014, 52,660 people boarded flights at Grand Forks International Airport, up from the 52,326 boardings during the same time period the previous year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

“As we keep growing, and if people keep supporting our airport here…then airlines pay more attention to you,” said outgoing City Council President and Airport Authority Commissioner Hal Gershman. “We appreciated United being here and we’d like them to know the passenger gate is always open in Grand Forks for them.”

East to west

A few months after United left Grand Forks, business leaders met at the Hilton Garden Inn to talk about “lessons learned,” airport Executive Director Patrick Dame said.

“When I got here, the big message was, ‘We don’t want to fly east to go west,” Dame said, referring to the daily flights Delta offers to Minneapolis.

But Dame said he got the impression during that March meeting that flight frequency and connection times were more important than avoiding an easterly flight.

“And some of them said, ‘You know what, flying to Minneapolis isn’t that far east from Grand Forks,’” he said.

“I think that’s the other thing that people are realizing is that we need to concentrate on Delta too,” Gershman added. “The more we can promote them the better we’re off too.”

Delta’s boarding numbers declined slightly last year, from 74,019 in 2012 to 71,743 in 2013, its lowest since at least 2006. Allegiant’s figures also took a slight dip from 57,218 to 56,500.

Dame said Delta’s numbers took a hit when United came to Grand Forks, but are now on the rise again.

“We did see some people go away from using Delta to using the direct service,” Dame said. “We have seen that reflect back the other way since United’s departure.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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