Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Bemidji's aviation provider to change, but public should be unaffected. Bemidji Regional Airport (KBJI), Minnesota.

SkyWest is likely going to be providing commercial air service to Bemidji. But the change should not affect the public.

Harold Van Leeuwen, the airport manager, reports that SkyWest will provide air service to Bemidji as a Delta Connect partner and that to the public there will be no interruption or viable change in service.

The traveling public will still book through Delta and have Delta flights, Van Leeuwen said.

Delta this summer announced its plans to drop flights in 24 small cities as it sought a subsidy from the U.S. Department of Transportation under the Essential Air Service program.

That contract now is poised to go to SkyWest, according to Van Leeuwen. Contracts must be approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation and are not yet finalized.

Van Leeuwen expects that SkyWest, headquartered in St. George, Utah, would run two commercial flights a day between Bemidji and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in a 50-seat jet.

The airline also is open to the possibility of a third flight, which is what Delta now provides, Van Leeuwen noted.

Van Leeuwen’s comments came during a press conference on Minnesota aviation as think-tank Minnesota 2020 released its new report, “Holding Pattern: Problems and Progress in Rural Aviation.” The 20-page report, available online at, discusses the current state of aviation in Minnesota and offers solutions to rebalance air service throughout the state.

Aviation brings more than $12 billion to the state’s economy, making up nearly 5 percent, according to the report.

“Aviation is a key industry in Minnesota,” said Minnesota 2020 senior fellow Matt Entenza.

But the bulk of the economic activity is occurring at the state’s three international airports – MSP, Duluth and Rochester.

Delta’s summer announcement left commercial air service in five Minnesota cities – Bemidji, Brainerd, Thief River Falls, International Falls and Hibbing – up in the air. Another city, St. Cloud, already was abandoned by Delta two years ago.

“Commercial aviation is absolutely critical” to the Bemidji economy, Van Leeuwen said, noting that multiple businesses rely on transportation availability.

SkyWest, he said, is poised to receive a $1.7 million subsidy from the EAS to ensure the continuation of commercial air service, which is a requirement of current EAS rules.

The possibility of expanding from two flights a day to three flights a day shows that SkyWest expects to do well in Bemidji, Van Leeuwen said, noting that Bemidji was profitable for Delta.

In an event separate from the Minnesota 2020 press conference, Van Leeuwen and six civic leaders from the region met Monday with Christopher Roy, Minnesota’s director of aeronautics, to discuss air service success in Bemidji.

Joining Van Leeuwen were Jim Benson, chairman of “Bemidji Leads!”; Dave Hengel, director of community stewardship development for the Headwaters Regional Development Commission; Bemidji Mayor Dave Larson; John Chattin, city manager; and two representatives from Concordia Language Villages.

They emphasized to Roy that Bemidji is unique, Van Leeuwen said. They were not arguing that the community needs commercial air service, but rather saying that it is a success.

Bemidji’s location in north central Minnesota has 110,000 residents within 60 minutes of the community, Van Leeuwen said. The community also has a high number of airport users with Sanford Health, Bemidji State University and government employees, as well as CLV visitors.

Further, he said, the airport contributes to the Bemidji economy as well.

In the eight years that he has led the airport, it has undergone nearly $19 million in improvements to its runways, taxiways, and, most recently, its terminal.

The terminal project was funded, at more than 90 percent, by federal funds, he said, and provided jobs to 82 local workers (within 30 miles of Bemidji).

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