August 11, 2022

Delta Cuts Number of Flights to Small Cities in Midwest

Delta Air Lines said Friday it was reducing the number of flights to small cities in the nation’s midsection, saying it could not make money on flights that were sometimes empty.

The affected flights connect Delta’s hubs to 24 small cities in rural Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota. Some of the cities are served only by Delta, but regional airlines might take over some of the routes. Delta also said it would ask for federal subsidies to keep some of the flights.

Most of the affected flights are on Delta’s 34-seat Saab turboprops, which it is phasing out by the end of this year. Higher fuel prices have made it difficult to operate small planes profitably, because the fuel bill is divided among a small number of passengers. Even the next-larger option, the 50-seat regional jets flown by Delta and other airlines, is often unprofitable for the same reason. Delta is retiring many of those planes, too.

Delta, which is based in Atlanta, said it was losing $14 million a year on the flights included in Friday’s announcement. Their occupancy averaged just 52 percent, compared with a systemwide average of 83 percent last year. The average occupancy out of Thief River Falls, Minn., was just 12 percent, Delta said. The flight from Greenville, Miss., runs just 27.6 percent full. Some flights have been empty, it said.

Flights in 16 of the cities on Delta’s list are subsidized by the federal Extended Air Service program. The Transportation Department solicits bids from airlines to see how much money it would take to get them to serve a particular city. Delta said it was looking for regional haulers, including Great Lakes Aviation, to take over those routes.

Great Lakes operates 19-seat planes, a size that might operate profitably. A Great Lakes spokeswoman declined to comment on the possibility of taking over the Delta routes.

The Transportation Department can make an airline keep serving a city even after its subsidy contract runs out, a spokesman, Bill Mosley, said.

It is theoretically possible that no airlines would bid to serve a city. “It’s very rare,” Mr. Mosely said. “We would rebid if that were the case.”

The city of Bemidji in northwestern Minnesota does not currently get a subsidy, but Delta says it wants one to keep flying there. Right now one of Delta’s regional feeder partners operates three 50-seat regional jets per day between Bemidji and Delta’s hub in Minneapolis, a 4.5-hour drive away.

Bemidji illustrates why airlines have historically sought out travelers in small cities. Such flights attract more than their share of business travelers, who tend to pay more. And if their flight starts on Delta, they’ll generally stick with Delta all the way to Chicago or New York.

“So they’re paying for a bigger ticket somewhere else,” said Harold M. Van Leeuwen Jr., the manager of the Bemidji airport. “Bemidji has been a good location for them.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=d068777280268e730b325d4f21b31d7e

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