Our view: Essential Air Service vital in Thief River Falls, but issues exist

Herald pull quote, 9/29/19

Thief River Falls is just 50 miles from Grand Forks, yet it has a functional airport that offers daily service to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Thief River Falls has this service despite a population of just 8,600 residents.

It’s all made possible by federal dollars through a program called Essential Air Service. At Thief River Falls, the airport’s carrier – Boutique Air – receives more than $3 million per year to fly several times each day to and from Minneapolis. Aided by subsidies, the flights are surprisingly cheap – often as low as $120 round-trip.

Yet Boutique has had cancellations and doesn’t seem open to discussing it. A report in today’s Herald notes that the airport authority of Thief River Falls sent a letter of concern to the airline but has not yet heard back about potential solutions. The Herald reached out to Boutique numerous times in recent weeks to ask about the canceled flights, but heard nothing.

The silence should be a red flag, and it’s frustrating as Boutique receives millions of subsidy dollars for its services.

The Essential Air Service program already comes with controversies and pitfalls. A perfect example exists in the northern Red River Valley.


There is a vibrant airport in Grand Forks, an hour’s drive from Thief River Falls. Grand Forks also flies each day to Minneapolis, but airlines at Grand Forks do not receive EAS funding.

Is that fair? It depends upon the point of view, and it outlines a debate that always has and always will surround the EAS program, which costs some $300 million nationwide each year.

EAS is popular in small communities, since air travel offers a certain quality-of-life factor for residents. Air service also is an important factor in keeping and attracting business.

In Thief River Falls, business is especially important. There, the massive company Digi-Key already employs more than 3,200, and an ongoing $300 million expansion means the company will need another 100 jobs per year over the next 10 years.

Workers come from the entire region, meaning Digi-Key is driving the economy not just in Thief River Falls but throughout northwestern Minnesota.

So while many – including us – sometimes question the worth of Essential Air Service throughout the country, and while many worry about its negative impact on non-subsidized airports nearby, it’s simply unrealistic to believe a town like Thief River Falls will lose its regional airline status anytime soon.

Nor should it. The potential negative impact it could have on the business community, and therefore the economy in the region, is just too great.

Credit goes to the Thief River Falls airport authority for being proactive, not only in seeking answers from Boutique but also in working to maintain what it considers a vital service for the community.


However, as long as EAS exists in Thief River Falls, the residents there deserve timely and consistent service from a carrier that keeps its schedule and communicates well. And that’s where improvements can be made.

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