The long road of selecting an airline to provide Essential Air Service at Thief River Falls Airport has come to an end.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, on Thursday, Feb. 27, issued an order selecting Denver Air Connection to replace Boutique Air, which has operated at Thief River Falls since June 2018. Denver Air’s two-year contract runs from June 2020 to May 2022 and has the possibility of being renewed. The contract requires Denver Air to provide 12 round-trip flights per week to Minneapolis using either a 30- or 50-seat jet.

“That’s exactly what we wanted. We’re really excited to have Denver Air come in and replace Boutique,” said airport manager Joe Hedrick. “I foresee a lot more leisure and business travel once the service takes over, so I think it really makes for a bright future at the airport.”

Denver Air Connection’s proposal to the airport board in Thief River Falls and accepted by the DOT states the average fare for a one-way flight to Minneapolis would be $99, an increase from Boutique, which has offered fares as low as $59.

A DOT document issued on Feb. 27 states that passengers have increased since May 2019, but the increase can be attributed to lowered fares by Boutique, which has struggled with reliability – a chief concern for the airport board and local employers.

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Data provided by Hedrick to the DOT show that Boutique managed a 90% reliability rate in 2019 and 82% of its cancellations were due to controllable conditions and were not, for example, weather related. Denver Air Connection’s proposal to the airport board focused heavily on its reliability rate of 99.6% and an on-time rate of 94%.

During the community comments period of the airline selection process, Digi-Key Electronics, the community’s largest employer, informed the DOT that it “no longer recommends their vendors, suppliers or employees fly in or out of Thief River Falls Airport because of concerns about Boutiques reliability,” according to the airline selection document.

Hedrick, in a phone call to the Herald, said the number of passengers taking off from Thief River Falls Airport in 2019 stands at about 5,000. He said he is looking forward to growing that number, which could trigger increased federal funding.

“I kind of am forecasting the 8,000-passenger range,” he said. “That would get us $600,000.”

The ultimate goal is to increase passengers to 10,000 per year, which would result in $1 million in annual federal funding, according to Hedrick.

“I think we won’t be able to get there without a 50-passenger jet, so this is the vehicle that we need in order to obtain that goal," he said.