July 24, 2019

Kelly Busche
Duluth News Tribune

The number of people who flew in or out of Duluth International Airport grew by around 5 percent in the first quarter of this year.

Approximately 2,500 more people flew with the airport from January to March this year, compared to the same time period last year. Increasing competition between airlines that offer flights out of Duluth caused the increase from last year's 49,500 passengers.

The airline is hopeful this increases the likelihood it will receive a federal grant to fund a direct flight to Denver, said Natalie Peterson, director of communication and marketing for Duluth Airport Authority.

Although American Airlines wasn’t yet offering services at the airport during this year's first quarter, it still drove competition among the other airlines, Peterson said. This competition lowered ticket prices, causing more people to buy tickets.

Ticket prices fell by 7 percent this quarter compared to last year, according to the airport. And prices are still trending downward.

“Just the news of them coming … (caused) the airlines to react to that from a pricing standpoint — to become competitive,” she said. She added that the airlines themselves, not the Duluth Airport Authority, set ticket prices.

Numerous other factors inspired more passengers to fly, she said.

The economy of the region surrounding the airport has “a lot of good things happen(ing),” she said. This causes a “trickle effect” as more people fly. Passengers come from Duluth, as well as northern Minnesota and Wisconsin to fly with them.

They’ve also done more marketing to the area to encourage people and nearby businesses to fly local, she said.

Two months ago, American Airlines started offering daily, non-stop flights to Chicago. Looking at resulting passenger numbers already, Peterson said they should end up with a “really solid” year.

“We’re really happy with what’s been happening the last few months,” she said.

Duluth Airport looks to Denver

The increase in passenger numbers will hopefully help the airport secure a $1 million in federal grant funding for a direct flight to Denver, Peterson said.

The airport recently applied for the Small Community Air Service Development Program, which the Department of Transportation oversees. The airport would receive $750,000 from the government, with the remaining $250,000 being covered by pledges from local businesses. To apply for the grant, Peterson said they had to obtain the local business pledges before submitting it.

The airline that would offer the direct flights to Denver also signed a letter of support for the application. Peterson said it’s an airline that already works with the airport.

Increasing passenger numbers and a strong year financially for the airport makes Peterson hopeful that they will receive the grant, she said.