THIEF RIVER FALLS – It’s been more than a year since Denver Air Connection took over for Boutique Air at Thief River Falls Regional Airport. While the pandemic first brought air travel everywhere to a near standstill, passenger numbers are ticking back up, and the airline has avoided mistakes that lost Boutique the Minneapolis route.

Denver Air Connection took over Essential Air Service operations at Thief River Falls on June 1, 2020, right when the pandemic put travelers’ vacation plans on hold. Throughout that time, the airline has met its contractually-mandated twelve round-trip flights per week to the Twin Cities, setting the stage for future growth at the airport. Both airport and airline officials are optimistic that enplanements will increase, as more people become familiar with the carrier.

The carrier also has been in casual talks with management at Grand Forks International Airport, opening the possibility that it could eventually have regular flights from Grand Forks to Denver.

In Thief River Falls, customers are getting used to the new carrier, according to the airport manager.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

“So far this year we're actually closer to our peak activity levels of the last carrier, Boutique Air,” said Joe Hedrick, airport manager in Thief River Falls. “With plenty more capacity to go, and people are still kind of learning about the airline and getting comfortable traveling, we think that's going to continue.”

Hedrick added he is “thrilled” to have DAC in Thief River Falls. The carrier provides regular service to and from Minneapolis with either a 30- or 50-seat jet, and the trip takes about 45 minutes.

Through May, 3,717 passengers have taken off from Thief River Falls, a healthy rebound from when air travel dropped about 95% during the pandemic. The extra capacity of the jets puts the airline on track to handle more travelers than in recent years. Boutique Air offered flights on an eight-seat single-engine plane, in a more executive type of flying experience.

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
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

Hedrick said it’s still early to tell how passenger numbers will pan out over the year, but should the trend continue as it has been, the airport could see numbers reach levels not seen there in decades, potentially topping out at more than 11,000 passengers.

“That would be not an all-time high, but the highest that we've seen since the late '70s, early '80s,” Hedrick said.

According to Hedrick, DAC has a 99.5% reliability rate, while Boutique averaged a 91% rate. The previous air carrier frequently had to cancel flights due to maintenance issues, or pilot availability, which led the airport board to begin the search for a new airline. Boutique is based in San Francisco, meaning when a part was needed for repair work, it had to be flown to Minneapolis. In its first year of operations, Hedrick said DAC had to cancel flights eight times, but six were weather related, and beyond the carrier’s control.

DAC is based outside of Minnesota, but the airline has hired a mechanic who remains on site at Thief River Falls. The mechanic handles all regular maintenance issues, and aircraft that need in-depth servicing are flown to Denver. Jon Coleman, director of business development at DAC, said the airline has a “robust” maintenance program.

Coleman told the Herald the company is working to roll out discounted fares for a portion of seats for passengers flying to Minneapolis. Prices for remaining seats would be for higher amounts. Fares are usually $84 for a one-way flight.

“We're going to start offering some very attractive fares, to hopefully raise awareness,” Coleman said.

Denver Air Connection in Grand Forks?

DAC has continued to add stops for its service to Denver, and recently added South Dakota airports in Pierre and Watertown. When asked if the airline is considering adding service in Grand Forks, Coleman responded “we are,” but added that the airline needs to work out details for a potential move. Flights could originate in Thief River Falls; after a stop in Grand Forks, the plane would continue to Denver.

Ryan Riesinger, executive director of Grand Forks International Airport, said he has been in talks with DAC, which is nothing unusual. He said he’s had conversations with other airlines about the possibility of opening Grand Forks to new destinations.

Still, Riesinger said adding Denver as a destination would be good for the region, particularly because DAC shares an interline agreement with United Airlines. Interline agreements allow passengers to create itineraries with multiple participating airlines, without having to check in again, and luggage is sent through to the final destination.

Ultimately, Riesinger said, it’s up to DAC to determine its timeline, and how the company decides to approach a new market.

“Certainly we're hopeful to add additional service and we'd love to have that additional route to Denver added to our map,” Riesinger said. “That's about all I can say at this point.”