Is this goodbye to cheap flights to Chicago?
ATA Airlines, the only low-fare carrier flying between the Twin Cities and Chicago, is dropping the service Dec. 1.
Even though it offered just a handful of flights in the market, its fares — as low as $59 each way — were credited with forcing Northwest Airlines and others to keep their fares down.
No other low-fare carrier is stepping in to replace ATA on the route. Southwest Airlines and JetBlue on Friday signaled that the Twin Cities is not on their immediate dance card.
The most interest came from AirTran, which said it was "considering" flying the route. AirTran already flies nonstop from the Twin Cities to Orlando, Fla., and Atlanta.
Indianapolis-based ATA, which is in the midst of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, has lately averaged five daily round-trips between Chicago's Midway Airport and the Twin Cities. The route is among several that ATA is eliminating because it's not making money on them.
During the first seven months of 2005, ATA carried 241,000 passengers between the Twin Cities and Midway; Northwest carried 226,000, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The counts include travelers whose journeys began and ended in other cities.
In January, ATA forged an alliance with Southwest, which took a 28 percent ownership interest in ATA and made $117 million in financial commitments to the struggling carrier. ATA began to feed Twin Cities passengers into Southwest's network at Midway. It has never said how many, though. And Southwest won't disclose a count either.
The exchange of passengers between the two airlines will continue, said Southwest spokeswoman Linda Rutherford on Friday.
In an April interview with the Pioneer Press, John Denison, chief executive of ATA, said his airline would have to fill about 70 percent of its seats to make "reasonable" money.
It didn't come close to that target out of the Twin Cities: Federal data show ATA hit just 49 percent through July of this year.
Northwest, meanwhile, has increased some fares for Dec. 1, when ATA drops the Twin Cities-Chicago service, said Terry Trippler, a travel expert with cheapseats.com. On Nov. 30, a Twin Cities traveler will pay $124 for a one-way "walk-up" ticket to fly that day to Midway on Northwest. But on Dec. 1, that fare will be $195, Trippler said.
But Northwest said that its lowest fare on the route is "essentially unchanged at $198 roundtrip after ATA discontinues service."
Eagan-based Northwest does not plan to change its flight schedule as a result of the ATA service cut, said spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch.
"Much of their (ATA's) traffic was connecting to destinations beyond Midway, destinations we served nonstop with competitive fares and a superior schedule," he said.
Ebenhoch noted that while Northwest will be the only carrier offering service from the Twin Cities to Midway, Northwest, American and United airlines all fly between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago's O'Hare airport.
But unless another low-fare carrier takes on the Twin Cities-Chicago route, fares will climb steadily, forecasts Trippler.
"The Metropolitan Airports Commission needs to get a low-fare carrier in there," Trippler said.
That could be a challenge. AirTran was the most receptive to the notion of entering the Twin Cities-Chicago market Friday, but all a spokeswoman would say was: "It is something we are considering."
Mendota Heights-based Sun Country Airlines also is a possibility on the route, said Trippler. And US Airways, newly emerged from bankruptcy after merging with the healthier America West, might be another.
JetBlue, an industry darling, was standoffish. "We don't have plans to move into St. Paul, right now,'' said spokesman Brandon Hamm.
Southwest, the low-fare powerhouse, was equally cool: "We have no announcements," Rutherford said.
Martin J. Moylan, who covers airlines, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-5479.
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