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Denver Air Connection takes flight in Thief River Falls

Carrier aims to provide more seats, fewer cancellations.

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A Denver Air Connection jet sits on the tarmac at Thief River Falls Regional Airport on May 22. The airline brought the aircraft and crew in early for training, and to become familiarized with the Thief River Falls-Minneapolis route. (Submitted photo)

Denver Air Connection has begun making flights from Thief River Falls Regional Airport to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, bringing the long process of adding the carrier to a close.

Denver Air Connection made its first flights at Thief River Falls on June 1, the first day of its two-year Essential Air Service contract. The airline took over the route from Boutique Air, which had operated flights between the two airports since 2016. Concerns about a high number of cancellations by Boutique prompted the airport manager to send a letter of concern to the U.S. Department of Transportation in September. As the contract-renewal period drew near, three additional airlines submitted bids to take over the route.

“I am very excited to have Denver Air Connection here,” said Laura Stengrim, executive director of Visit Thief River Falls. “I’m very hopeful that they will restore reliable service to and from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.”

Residents and visitors have expressed positive sentiments about the airline, particularly the fact that DAC uses a larger jet in its operations, according to Stengrim. The airline is contracted to use either a 50-seat Embraer EMB-145 or a 30-seat Dornier 328. Boutique provided service with a more executive-level feel to it, with an eight-seat Pilatus PC 12.

Flight time between Thief River Falls and Minneapolis takes an hour, and DAC offers 12 flights per week, two per day on weekdays, with one per day on the weekends. Boutique had previously offered 21 flights per week. Air travelers can expect to see higher fares with DAC over Boutique, which, on occasion, offered fares as low as $39 to the Twin Cities. DAC’s fares appear to be arranged on a tiered level, but tend to hover around $100, sometimes climbing up to $120 and dipping down to $84.

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Kevin Brown, vice president of brand and communications at Digi-Key Electronics, the area’s largest employer, noted DAC’s larger jets would benefit business travelers at his company -- when they are actually able to travel. The electronics supplier has put in place a no-travel rule for employees.

“We’re delighted Denver Air is taking over and providing service,” Brown said. “We expect, that over the long run that will be an asset to people coming and going for business purposes.”

Boutique started strong when it began in 2016, with nearly full passenger loads. The airline set new passenger records for the airport in its first four months of operations, with 4,789 passengers from July through October that year, double what the airport saw the previous year.

The airline ran into problems with a high number of flight cancellations over the past year. The airline’s reliability rating ran from percentages in the high 90s to high 70s. Shawn Simpson, CEO of San-Francisco based Boutique, traveled to Thief River Falls in October to address the problems. At that time, Simpson told the Herald cancellations stemmed from a shortage of pilots, to difficulty getting parts or spare planes to the Minneapolis airport, when repairs were necessary.

The Thief River Falls Airport Board ultimately decided to back Denver Air Connection’s bid to take over the route based on its 99.6% reliability rating, as well as the increased occupancy it brings. If the airport sees more than 10,000 enplanements in a year, an extra $1 million in federal funds would be triggered. That’s little likely this year, however, as enplanements at airports across the nation are down. Due to the pandemic, only 73 passengers boarded flights at Thief River Falls in April, down from 532 in March, making June an inauspicious time for Denver Air to take over.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Service program provides subsidies to airlines to offer service in smaller markets. The program allows people living in those areas access to the national air transportation system. Airlines bid with DOT for two-year contracts. Denver Air Connection bid nearly $4 million for the route, $400,000 more than Boutique.

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