Dubuque Regional Airport Seeks More Carriers

Sept. 11, 2001 claimed plenty of casualties in an already embattled airline industry, and competitive commercial air service in Dubuque could be counted among the fallen.

Once the home of three commercial carriers, United, Northwest and American Eagle, the Dubuque Regional Airport's list dwindled to a single service provider in 2003, when then-financially floundering Northwest pulled its regional operations from Dubuque.

While American Eagle, the airport's sole surviving carrier, has added more flights and jet service to its Dubuque-to-Chicago route, local business travelers in particular have been clamoring for more destinations and greater flight frequency.

In what appears to be a stepped-up campaign, Dubuque Regional Airport officials are recharging efforts to land another hub, expand flight schedules and go after another commercial carrier.

Airport manager Robert Grierson said a meeting is scheduled for later this month with American Eagle, regional carrier of American Airlines.

"We have discussed using turbo-prop service to St. Louis, and regional jet service down to Dallas/Fort Worth," Grierson said of the air travel possibilities.

He cautioned that the discussions are just that.

"I wouldn't call it concrete at all; I wouldn't even call it Jell-O yet, " Grierson said. "(American Eagle) is very comfortable with what they have in Dubuque right now. We are just giving them different ideas and suggestions."

Dave Jackson, American Eagle spokesman, said the idea of expanding Dubuque air service is something the regional carrier is "willing to study." But like anything in the business world, especially in the volatile airline industry, Jackson said expanded service boils down to a basic economic question.

"Any additional flights we would add to any hub would be contingent upon demand," he said. "There has to be a willingness on the flying public's part to fly to those cities."

But the Dubuque market hasn't been short on demand.

American Eagle topped 4,000 passenger enplanements in Dubuque in July, up 13 percent from the same month in 2005. The numbers have consistently grown during the past five years, following the departure of the United Airlines regional carrier, which ended its Dubuque-to-Chicago service a week before 9/11.

Overall, American Eagle's financial health has improved, helping the recovery of the airline corporation's parent. In 2005, the regional carrier brought in about $1.5 billion in revenue for American Airlines, just in connecting passengers to the airline, according to Jackson.

"That's the way we see our value to the network," the spokesman said.

City officials a few years ago rolled out the "Fly Dubuque" campaign, an ambitious effort aimed at getting tri-state area residents to think Dubuque first when making air travel plans. The initiative was underwritten by hundreds of thousands of dollars in business travel commitments to Fly Dubuque - ultimately pouring cash into American Eagle's coffers.

But air travelers might have another option. Grierson said airport officials have met with another carrier, apparently curious about the Dubuque market.

"They are very interested in the business travelers we have in our community," he said declining to disclose the name of the company.

A consultant is expected to conduct an analysis of tri-state business travelers, which will be forwarded on to the carrier. Grierson said the airline wouldn't provide service to Chicago, but rather to a hub that would "fit the bill of our top 25 destinations."

If the carrier likes what it sees in the Dubuque market, it could begin service in a little more than a year, Grierson said. But there remains a lot of "ifs" ahead. Given the spate of airline bankruptcies, the rising price of oil, the fallout of the Middle East and the constant specter of terrorism, Grierson said any deal is far from done.

"If they disagree with any of the numbers or encounter any difficulty in any of these points, well, this is all just speculation then," the airport manager said.

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