Delta to cut services as it retires fleet

Delta Airlines officials have confirmed plans to reduce or eliminate service in 24 small markets throughout the midwest.

In Minnesota, the airline will pull its services out of Thief River Falls, International Falls and Brainerd. Some towns may be spared a loss of regional air service.

Delta is retiring its aging fleet of Saab 34-passenger turboprops, the airlines' the biggest reason for culling services. The aircraft has been the primary passenger plane serving Minnesota's regional airports. Delta spokeperson Kristin Baur said it's an opportunity for the company to consolidate its resources.

"The fleet retirement, combined with the low level of demand, has made it unfeasible for us to achieve profitability in some of these markets," Baur said. "The flight loads on these routes have averaged approximately 52 percent during the last 12 months, compared to a system-wide load factor of 83 percent.

Services are expected to cease before the end of the year. Delta's operations are unprofitable in Thief River Falls where flights have averaged only 12 percent occupancy over the past year, Baur said.

Wyoming-based Great Lakes Airlines is a possible replacement to provide service in International Falls and Brainerd, which both typically have 53 percent flight loads.

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Brainerd airport manager Steve Sievek said that's good news, although he hasn't yet heard how a new carrier might affect the community's flight schedule.

"What I've been told is that that would be a seamless transition, that our passengers would not notice a difference, other than the fact that it's a different airline," Sievek said.

The future is uncertain for airport service in two other Minnesota communities. Delta has expressed interest in continuing service in Bemidji and Hibbing, if the company can secure increased federal subsidies to make service profitable. Bemidji's airport currently receives no subsidies, while service in Hibbing was subsidized at close to $3 million dollars last year.

Delta said it will need the subsidies to operate a larger regional jet aircraft once the Saab fleet is retired.