The Thief River Falls Airport Board is backing Denver Air Connection over Boutique Air, the current provider for its Essential Air Service route to Minneapolis. However, the U.S. Department of Transportation has the final say.

The Airport Board deliberated for nearly two hours during the morning of Wednesday, Dec. 4, before choosing to back Denver Air Connection. The airline, a subsidiary of Key Lime Air, operates out of Denver International Airport with service to destinations in Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming. The aircraft that would provide the service between Thief River Falls and Minneapolis, should the airline be selected by the DOT, would either be a 50-seat Embraer EMB-145 or a 30-seat Dornier 328 Jet, a large step up from Boutique's eight seats on a Pilatus PC 12.

The reliability of Denver Air Connection, at a rate of 99.6%, was one of the deciding factors in the board’s decision, as well as the capacity of the jet. That capacity has the potential to increase enplanements, which could trigger more federal dollars for the airport.

“They have enough seats on the plane that, if the service is reliable and successful, we could get to primary entitlement status, which means that the airport, at 10,000 enplanements, would receive $1 million per year in federal entitlement money,” said Joe Hedrick, the airport's manager.

Thief River Falls Regional Airport’s current entitlement, called a “non primary entitlement” is $150,000 per year, according to Hedrick. Enplanements at the airport were at 4,805 in 2018, down from 5,735 two years ago.

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Denver Air Connection’s bid states that the average fair for a one-way trip to Minneapolis would be $99, an increase from Boutique which has offered fares as low as $59. Denver Air has proposed 12 weekly round trip flights.

In addition to its reliability rate, Denver Air Connection says its flights are on time 94.1% of the time. This goes in contrast to Boutique Air, which has held the route since 2016.

“Year one with them, they absolutely knocked it out of the park,” Hedrick said. “But since that time, they’ve kind of been floundering on their reliability, and the past year has been hovering at 90%.”

Hedrick will draft a letter to the DOT stating the board’s support for Denver Air Connection, the next step in the process. The DOT has the final say on whether or not it will select the airline. Hedrick said the letter will be submitted by Dec. 13, and the order selecting the airline should be published about 30 days after receiving the letter.

One area of concern for Denver Air Connection could be the price of its bid. At nearly $4 million, it was the highest of the four airlines bidding for the route. Boutique Air’s bid came in at $3.6 million, in the middle of the pack.

“I have seen (DOT) go against the community, but it is rare,” Hedrick said. “That’s the best way I can put it.”

President and CEO of Key Lime Air and Denver Air Connection Cliff Honeycutt seemed assured the price of the bid would not affect the final outcome.

“While our proposal is slightly more expensive out of the box, it clearly has the most potential to increase Thief Rivers’ confidence and trust in their daily air service,” he wrote to the Herald in an email. “This will eventually translate into increased ridership, which will ultimately lower the subsidy requirement as the capacity isn’t limited by a reduced number of seats .… We are confident that the Department of Transportation will recognize this and support Thief River’s recommendation.”