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Thief River Falls Airport Authority mulls four airline proposals for service

Size of aircraft and frequency of flights are major concerns. Ability to deal with harsh winter condition is another factor, according to Joe Hedrick, airport manager. The final decision rests with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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Members of the Thief River Falls Airport Authority board a Denver Air Connection 30 seat Dornier 328 for a tour. (Adam Kurtz/ Grand Forks Herald)

The manager at Thief River Falls Regional Airport said he would like to see a larger aircraft than that which now serves the airport, at its current 18 flights per week. But none of four Essential Air Service bids being reviewed meet that desire, and the U.S. Department of Transportation gets the final say.

With presentations by the CEOs of four bidding airlines completed on Tuesday, Nov. 25, the ball is now in the court of the Thief River Falls Airport Authority to prepare its comments to the DOT, as it mulls over which airline to throw its weight behind for its Essential Air Service route to Minneapolis/ St. Paul International Airport.

“That’s the catch-22 that we’re at,” said Airport Manager Joe Hedrick. “The DOT especially controls that. They say, if you go from nine seats to 19 seats, then we expect your frequency to drop down to 12 flights a week … We think we have the demand for both of those things, so really we’ll be just weighing what is more important to our customer base: Is it reliability, frequency of flights or is it the capacity of the aircraft?”

The four airlines are Air Choice One, which is bidding $3.7 million for its first year of the contract; Boutique Air, the current route holder, which is bidding at $3.5 million for the first year; Denver Air Connection, which is bidding at nearly $4 million; and Southern Airways Express LLC, which is bidding at $3.3 to $3.6 million.

Contracts run for two or four years.

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The DOT requested bids for Thief River Falls Regional Airport’s service to Minneapolis earlier in November, with the new contract slated to begin on June 1. The DOT required the bids to be “consistent with what the community currently receives, namely 18 weekly round trips, with eight- to nine-seat aircraft." The Department also would consider a larger 30- or 50-seat aircraft with 12 weekly round trips.

Hedrick, cognizant of the requirements for the route, would like to see more.

“I think the best for us would be to take our existing frequency of 18 flights a week and put that into the next capacity-size aircraft, which is that 19 seat,” he said. “I don’t see any bids that came through like that, 19 seats for 18 round trips per week.”

As to capacity, Air Choice One has put forth an alternate to its regular bid, with a 19-seat option for 12 round-trip flights per week, at $3.1 million for the first year.

Denver Air Connection is offering a 30-seat option on a Dornier 328 jet, and a 50-seat option on an Embraer EMB-145 both at 12 round-trips a week. That size jet also poses some issues.

“We certainly don’t want to see a larger capacity airplane, like the Dornier 30-passenger or the 50-passenger EMB-145. We don’t want to see them half full, or less,” Hedrick said. “That just doesn’t look good …. We would have to be confident that we could fill those planes up in the long run.”

The choice, according to Airport Authority Chair Don Jensen, will not be easy, as the board must weigh other factors beyond number of seats and flights per week, such as the ability to operate in the harsh winter.

“I would have to say that maybe Denver Air has probably got more of a climate like we do: snow and wind and whatever,” Jensen said. “De-icing is a big issue.”

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Southern Airways CEO Stan Little said he believes his company’s aircraft, the nine-passenger Cessna Caravan, will hold up to the winter weather.

“These planes will fly up to negative 50,” Little said. “I hope that’s not too often .… There are a lot of planes that negative 50 can be a problem for .... If you stay below 50 degrees below zero for a long period of time, we may have an issue, but we’ll just pray hard that doesn’t happen.”

Though Jensen hinted at consistency being a factor in his decision, he did not commit to any one airline.

“I think Boutique has been pretty darn good to us, and I hate that we are going to deviate from them real fast, but you never know,” he said.

Money may be the deciding factor as to which airline winds up serving Thief River Falls.

Should the airport authority choose to support a more expensive bid, such as Denver Air Connection at nearly $4 million, the DOT still may choose a cheaper option.

“In that scenario, they would look at our comments, and they would look at the bottom dollar, bottom line, and say ... we’re not going to go with the community comments on this. They’re going to stick you with somebody else,” Hedrick said.

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Air Choice One CEO Shane Storz (right) and colleague, present to the Thief River Falls Airport Authority. (Adam Kurtz/ Grand Forks Herald)

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