April 26--Commercial passenger aircraft will return to Thief River Falls in June now that the federal government has approved another subsidized air service contract with Great Lakes Aviation.
The airline suspended service at the end of January after several months in which many flights were canceled. It was the only airline to submit a bid.
"We're glad to have passenger service back," said Joe Hedrick, manager of Thief River Falls Regional Airport.
Like the previous Essential Air Service contract, the new one will last two years and require 12 weekly round-trip flights between Thief River Falls and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. However, fewer seats will be available.
Great Lakes, which also served Devils Lake and Jamestown, N.D., was affected by Federal Aviation Administration regulations that went into effect in July, increasing the flight experience a co-pilot must have to fly commercial aircraft from 250 to 1,500 hours.
That effectively grounded a large share of pilots until they could qualify under the new standard, according to the airline. As a result, Great Lakes canceled as many as one-third of its flights to the three cities in the months that followed. Ultimately, it decided to suspend service altogether.
Devils Lake and Jamestown have since switched to SkyWest Airlines, which provides nonstop round-trip jet service to Denver.
Hedrick said Thief River Falls-area residents are apprehensive about Great Lakes' return.
"Everybody wants air service back," he said. "They're just afraid that Great Lakes won't be able to provide the service required, the service they expect."
He said the community had been satisfied with Great Lakes, which had a 90-plus reliability rating before the new FAA regulations.
To deal with its pilot shortage, Great Lakes will reconfigure its 19-passenger airplanes to carry just 9 passengers, according to Hedrick. That will allow co-pilots to fly with fewer than 1,500 hours.
Company officials have said they will go back to 19 seats as soon as they have enough pilots who meet the new standard, Hedrick said. But he is not convinced Great Lakes will reach that goal anytime soon, he said, because of the strong demand for such pilots.
"I happen to believe the major airlines are going to continue to draw pilots from the smaller regional airlines," he said.
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