Minneapolis flight cut from Great Falls airport, officials looking at options to increase traffic

Delta Air Lines has discontinued its flight from Great Falls to Minneapolis.

Normally at this time of year, Delta would have that as a daily flight and the cut means about 75 less people traveling through the Great Falls International Airport daily, according to John Faulkner, airport director.

Faulkner said the cut was due to the regional pilot shortage and it’s affecting other Montana airports too.

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He said that at the onset of the COVID pandemic, the airlines bought out most senior pilots and as they came out of the pandemic, hired up regional pilots so there are fewer left available for regional routes.

Faulkner said that the Minneapolis flight will likely be back in the spring once pilots can be hired. He said many airports lost the Minneapolis hub this fall, including Helena.

The airlines are also phasing out the smaller regional planes that hold about 75 passengers in favor of larger planes with 100 or more seats.

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Faulkner said he’s been raising the issue for awhile with the airport board and others, but it’s coming to a head faster than he anticipated.

“Regional flying is really in jeopardy in a lot of smaller communities,” Faulkner said.

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As pilots are retiring, Faulkner said fewer are coming in behind them since flight training is expensive and the requirements are extensive. He said that airlines haven’t been growing their own pilots in recent years and instead hire those who already have experience, that they’ve either paid for themselves or came out of the military.

Faulkner said that often the second seat copilots are only making about $40,000 which isn’t usually keeping up with the cost of training and gaining flight hours.

Faulkner said for the Great Falls airport, the loss of a flight means less people in the airport, which doesn’t help their goals of getting more traffic and more flights.

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He said it’s unknown how air travel will fare this fall and business travel is the least recovered piece of air travel.

Right now, Delta has daily flights to Salt Lake; United has daily flights to Denver and Alaska Airlines is flying daily to Seattle.

The loss of the Minneapolis flight is also the loss of the Great Falls airport’s only eastbound connection and is a “dramatic reduction for people trying to get back east,” Faulkner said.

He said it’s an indicator of the long-term future for smaller airports that they’ll need to diversity and get more traffic to get larger airplanes.

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Attracting more traffic will require attracting more tourism to the area, Faulkner said, and building a more resilient summer season.

An example of a tourism backed flight was the Chicago flight that was 70 percent inbound tourism traffic and was supported through the Chamber of Commerce’s airline incentive fund. That flight isn’t running now, but Faulkner said he’s expecting that flight to return. The incentive fund was depleted with the Chicago flight and bringing in Frontier, but Faulkner said they’re nearing their fundraising goal to replenish the fund and then applying for a grant to match those funds.

A group of airline route planners were in Great Falls in September and Faulkner said most had never been here before and were overwhelmed with how much there is to do in the area. They went kayaking, fishing, walked the River’s Edge Trail, visited downtown restaurants and bars and more.

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He said those airline officials said that when they buy internet search results related to trave, the top result was national parks but Montana itself also ranked high.

Faulkner said there’s an opportunity to grow that tourism market and in turn the airline traffic at the Great Falls airport to get more routes.

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Faulkner said the airline schedules mentioned that Great Falls was virtually unknown on the West Coast and “it’s an opportunity that maybe we can succeed in the chaos.”