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SkyWest air travel to be handled by Delta

Despite expected changes in the delivery of commercial air travel at the Bemidji Regional Airport, customers should notice no differences in operation. Pioneer Photo/ Monte Draper

The public will not be affected - and should barely notice - the upcoming changes at Bemidji Regional Airport.

SkyWest is on the verge of providing commercial air service to Bemidji airport travelers. Once that happens, it will do so as a Delta Connect Partner.

"SkyWest is a good solution and it is a Delta solution," said Harold Van Leeuwen, airport manager.

Bookings and tickets will still be handled through Delta.

There will be no interruption of service, Van Leeuwen said.

"For the public, it will be completely transparent," Van Leeuwen said, noting SkyWest has provided flight coverage before and passengers did not notice a difference.

Unlike Delta-owned airlines such as Mesaba and Pinnacle, SkyWest is an independent carrier contracted by Delta to provide air service to Bemidji.

The planes will fly under the Delta Connect flag, Van Leeuwen said.

The advantage to Bemidji, he said, is that SkyWest does have a responsibility to Delta, but its top priority will be filling that airplane.

Whereas now Delta has set fares in accordance with the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, SkyWest will be looking to fill the airplane and setting fares accordingly, he said.

The airline will be working to fill every last seat, Van Leeuwen said, adding he hopes fares to be a little lower.

Delta Airlines now provides commercial air service to Bemidji. This summer, Delta announced it wanted to drop flights in 24 cities, including this one.

But the airline never intended to leave Bemidji, Van Leeuwen said.

The economy pushed the numbers to the point where Delta had to cut back to two daily flights and needed a subsidy, Van Leeuwen said. Delta sought subsidies from the U.S. Department of Transportation under the Essential Air Service.

Delta notified the Minnesota Department of Transportation of its intention to discontinue service, which triggers the DOT to seek bids from interested carriers.

That bid process is all but complete and SkyWest appears to have the bid secured. The change could take place anywhere from 30 to 120 days from now. The entire 24-city bid package was affected by an extension notice last week, but Van Leeuwen said he heard that some officials would like to pull out the bids for Bemidji and Hibbing - who also has a winning SkyWest bid - and getting those completed.

Van Leeuwen said he is not disappointed about how the situation played out. He met recently with other airport managers who have relationships with SkyWest.

"They are all very pleased with SkyWest as a company," he said.

Further, the company is open to the idea of again running a third daily flight. If that occurs, that third flight would run without a subsidy.

"We have to have community support to make that happen," Van Leeuwen said.

Bemidji has been served by three flights a day during the summer and two flights a day during the winter. Van Leeuwen said he hopes SkyWest takes over sooner rather than later so he has a better opportunity to show the company the community can support a third flight in the summer.

Air travel in Bemidji is increasing, he said. From 2010 to 2011, there has been a 14 percent increase in passengers.

One the Friday morning flight, 55 people were seated on a 50-person jet and three others were bumped from the flight because there was not more room.

"We're full," he said.

The number of passengers this October was up 20 percent from October 2010, he said, and September had a 25 percent increase from September 2010.

"Air travel is up here," he said.