OUR OPINION: Devils Lake airport reaches takeoff speed

A year ago, the Devils Lake airport was on the receiving end of some bad publicity. And not just any bad publicity: This one aired nationally on CBS News.


A year ago, the Devils Lake airport was on the receiving end of some bad publicity. And not just any bad publicity: This one aired nationally on CBS News.

"When CBS News flew to Devils Lake, N.D., last week, a town with a population of 7,200, there were rows of empty seats and only four other passengers," a CBS News team reported in February 2015.

"The Department of Transportation shells out over $6 million a year to fund that route, one of 113 in the lower 48 states servicing rural communities like Devils Lake."

When a national news outlet puts out such a story, any number of things can happen to the story's object-in this case, the Devils Lake airport. One is that the situation gets worse.

And if you'd polled North Dakotans right after they'd seen or heard about the CBS News report, that's probably what most would have predicted. Emptier flights, bigger subsidies, more taxpayer dollars being incinerated in the SkyWest Airlines CRJ-200's engines-all of these could have been the outcome in Devils Lake a year later.


After all, it's darned hard to pull business into America's rural airports, as small-town residents across the country know. And in North Dakota, the economic slowdown in 2015 likely would only make things worse.

But lo and behold, the Devils Lake airport seems to have beaten the odds. For the airport now is offering fares that are low enough to draw passengers from Grand Forks, a marked reversal from earlier traffic patterns.

The net result has been increased ridership and a much more reassuring portrait of the airport's prospects, a Herald story on Sunday reported.

That's to the airport and SkyWest's great credit. And it's a reassuring outcome for the Essential Air Service program, too-a federal subsidy that's forever vulnerable to budget hawks, and needs all the "good news" stories such as Devils Lake's that it can get.

"Commercial airline passengers - counting those both arriving and leaving - totaled 5,104 in Devils Lake in 2015," Herald staff writer Kevin Bonham reported.

"That's nearly double the number in 2013, and a 76.7 percent increase over 2014.

"'We're moving in the right direction,' said John Nord, Devils Lake Regional Airport manager. 'We had our busiest December ever with more than 600 passengers.'"

Here's a big key to the airport's success:


"As of this past week, a round-trip ticket between Devils Lake and Denver was $262 if purchased about three weeks in advance," Bonham reported.

"That's about half the cost of Grand Forks-to-Denver flights."

Of course, while Devils Lake residents delight in those numbers, Grand Forks airport officials almost certainly frown. After all, the Devils Lake-to-Denver flights are subsidized; that's the Essential Air Service program's whole point. And arguably, the subsidies give the Devils Lake airport an unfair advantage.

But the Grand Forks airport has advantages of its own, including the presence of UND and its heavily subsidized aviation programs. Likewise, the airport and its infrastructure routinely benefit from federal largesse, thanks to the North Dakota delegation's disproportionate clout in Congress.

All things considered, we're pleased to see the Devils Lake airport's numbers and recognize the airport's vital role in the region's economic health. At that airport, at least, the Essential Air Service program is working just as it should.

Now, here's hoping the Thief River Falls airport can catch the same updraft. At this point, the numbers at TRF are shaky; but if Devils Lake can do it, Thief River Falls can, too.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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