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Thief River Falls air service to stop for a month as it prepares for Boutique Air to replace Great Lakes

THIEF RIVER FALLS--Patrons of the Thief River Falls Regional Airport might be without flights to the Twin Cities for a month as the airport transitions to a new carrier.

THIEF RIVER FALLS-Patrons of the Thief River Falls Regional Airport might be without flights to the Twin Cities for a month as the airport transitions to a new carrier.

The airport's current air service, Great Lakes Airlines, lost out in the bidding process and requested to end services May 31 when its Essential Air Service contract expires.

San Francisco-based Boutique Air, the airport's top choice, was awarded the contract by the U.S. Department of Transportation over Great Lakes Airlines and another bidder. But Boutique Air anticipates it won't begin flights out of the airport until a late June or early July.

Airport manager Joe Hedrick said Wednesday morning the lack of an exact start date isn't exactly alarming, or even surprising.

"I wish I did know an exact start date for Boutique Air, but these things take time, so it's not unexpected," Hedrick said, adding Boutique Air is entering two markets-Thief River Falls and Minneapolis-St. Paul Regional Airport-and needs to hire pilots, train staff and bring in baggage handling equipment, among other things. "There's a lot that goes into it."


As for the month's lag without service, Hedrick said the airport will make do, using that time to paint offices and get prepared for Boutique's arrival.

"I don't see it as a huge issue for us. We can weather a month's loss rent," Hedrick said. "As I've said, this downtime will allow passengers to delineate the two services. It won't be Great Lakes one day and Boutique the next. I see that as a benefit."

That disconnect will be important to passengers who have been burned by Great Lakes, Hedrick said. Great Lakes had a 75 percent reliability rating, meaning some flights were canceled, leaving customers displeased with the service.

And it's not the first time the airport has been without flights for an extended period of time.

In 2014, Great Lakes halted service from February through September, which resulted in the airport boarding 734 passengers, about a third of its 2015 count of 2,127.

Customer satisfaction, or lack thereof, with Great Lakes was cited as a consideration for the DOT in awarding the contract to Boutique Air.

Thief River Falls officials have sought to replace Great Lakes for several years, a sentiment reflected in the order issued by the DOT. The company has not been given high marks by the community, which has complained of numerous flight cancellations.

"Although Great Lakes, the incumbent, has agreements with major carriers, it did not receive any community support, a key selection criterion, nor had plans to market its service in its proposal," the DOT's order said.


Hedrick said Boutique Air boasts a 98 percent reliability rating.

"That alone is going to serve our passengers so much better," he said, adding the service has promised to market itself locally.

The agreement also calls for 18 flights per week, an increase from Great Lakes' 12 flights per week, with three round trips Monday through Friday, one on Saturday and two on Sunday.

The eight-seat aircraft are pressurized, meaning they can avoid weather and provide a smoother ride. The planes also feature leather seats, a pullout table, snacks, drinks and, perhaps most importantly, a restroom, Hedrick said.

Boutique Air will offer one-way flights at an introductory rate of $35.

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