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United, Delta now locked in competition for Duluth passengers

Ticket agent Chase Knauer helps passengers board a United flight to Chicago at the Duluth International Airport in 2015. (file / News Tribune)

For years, Delta Airlines and its predecessor, Northwest Airlines, have dominated the Duluth air travel market. But United Airlines has made a big push and is narrowing its gap with Delta in Duluth.

That increased competition benefits local travelers in very real ways and also is drawing greater interest to the market, said Tom Werner, executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority.

In regard to having carrier options, Werner said: "It's really the key to successful air service in a regional market like Duluth. When you have one carrier that clearly dominates the market, they have full control of price points and fares, full control of how many frequencies and available seats there are. So to have competition... keeps fares competitive. It provides additional options for flights and connectivity. It really gives consumers an extra choice."

Delta still holds a distinct edge, but it's shrinking.

Through the first 10 months of this year, Delta has carried 57 percent of passengers flying scheduled service through Duluth International Airport, compared with 43 percent of of travelers using United. That's a 14-point gap in market share.

During the same 10-month period in 2016, that spread was notably larger — with Delta carrying 63 percent of the passenger load compared with United's 37 percent share. So there has been a significant 12-point swing in United's favor over the past couple years.

Werner said United has made an impressive effort to capture more air travel business in Duluth, offering more seats in its flights than any other carrier this calendar year, based on an analysis of carrier schedules by the Duluth Airport Authority.

"The fact that any airline, other than Northwest and now Delta, has such a commitment and a strong belief in this market that they would add capacity to that degree is just a tremendous show of support," he said.

An increasingly competitive commercial air travel scene has helped Duluth International attract more business. Werner said the number of people flying through the airport year-to-date as of October was up 9.6 percent compared with the same period last year.

The sense of healthy competition also bodes well for Duluth's ability to attract other carriers to the market, Werner said.

"In Duluth, for a long time going back to the Northwest days, there were competitors who would try to enter the market in the '80s and '90s with direct links to Chicago or Milwaukee, and all of them failed," he said.

Werner believes United has changed that narrative.

"When people fly local and utilize both of our airlines, those are the types of stories that we're able to carry to each airline and say: Look you need to be bullish on Duluth, because people are out of here, and there's opportunity. And that message is being received," he said.

Nashville soon, Denver next?

During a budget presentation to the Duluth City Council on Thursday, Tom Werner, executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority, revealed that Sun Country Charters would begin offering flights between Duluth and Nashville, Tenn., in May.

When questioned later, he offered few details but said: "We're working hard on Nashville, and we'll have more information on it soon."

The new service will provide local travelers with direct access to a new vacation destination, helping to fill the void left following Allegiant Air's departure from the Duluth market in 2015.

But Werner also has his eye on a larger prize.

"We're positioned very well to gain access to a new third hub, and we hope that hub will be Denver," he told the council.

"That will have the strategic effect of lowering fares to multiple western destinations, to have a sustainable connection to a place like Denver. Again, it's all based on competition," he said.

At present, travelers flying out of Duluth have direct access to Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago, but Werner said a third western hub such as Denver would offer new opportunities. He laid out his hopes to attract new service to Denver with the help of a Small Community Air Service Development Grant.

Such a grant, designed to increase air service in underserved regional markets, also was used to help draw United to Duluth, opening service to Chicago.

Werner predicts competition for the air service dollars will be intense, but he likes Duluth's odds largely because its track record.

"We've had success in utilizing grant funds of that type before, and the Chicago route is certainly a poster child for how you successfully grow organically a route from its early stages of two daily frequencies up to four seasonally and have the passenger count grow with it so the airline has confidence that it will be sustainable over the long term," he said.

Peter Passi

Peter Passi covers Duluth city government and community issues. A graduate of Carleton College, he has worked as a reporter for more than 30 years and joined the Duluth News Tribune newsroom in 2000.

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