Following U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber's announcement that the Duluth International Airport had been awarded $750,000 to establish a direct flight to Denver, the Duluth Airport Authority announced Friday that it hopes to launch the service in 2022.

The airport will work to secure a deal with an airline within the next few months, DLH Executive Director Tom Werner said.

"Today, we take another step forward toward growing our air service even more at DLH," Werner said at a news conference. "When the service to Denver launches, it will be critically important that the region use the service. Flying local is more important than ever. If residents and businesses in our region want the new service to be successful they have to choose to fly local."

Tom Werner
Tom Werner

Currently, just over half of people in the region choose to drive to the Twin Cities airport.

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"If we were to capture even a portion of that, we likely would have a couple more routes and another airline," he said.

The national and local labor shortage, also affecting airlines, could delay the launch of the long-sought non-stop service to Denver. Coming out of the pandemic, the industry is readjusting to the rebounding demand for air travel and has experienced a number of early retirements and buyouts.

"In the next couple years, we're going to be about 20,000 pilots short alone, and that doesn't include the rest of the flight crew. We're going to be limited and I think we need to manage our expectations," Werner said. "The planes and crews have to be there."

In addition to the Small Community Air Service Development Program grant money, the airport has secured $250,000 in matching pledges from the community for the $1 million project, including $100,000 from the city of Duluth and $75,000 from St. Louis County.

The Duluth Airport Authority first sought federal funding through the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2019, but its request didn't make the cut. That year, the transportation department received 57 requests from airports totaling $37 million and awarded a collective $12.2 million to 18 airports.

The airport currently offers direct flights to Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Adding on a direct flight to Denver would position DLH to better compete with other westbound air travel and ultimately drive ticket prices down, Werner said. The service is also expected to bring $6 million in annual economic impact with just one flight a day.

In the eight years following the launch of the direct flight to Chicago O'Hare International Airport, DLH generated $158 million in economic impact.

"That is a testament to what this region can do when it supports a route and ultimately, year over year, what that impact can be to our economy," Werner said. "It's not small. It's a job creator."

Why Denver?

Air fares are typically higher when traveling west, Werner said, because there's less competition and connectivity compared to eastbound travel.

"For many reasons, we have long targeted the Intermountain West hub, and with Denver's growth as an airport in recent years, you can get to a lot of different places from Denver, not only domestically, but internationally," he said.

The route would give access to roughly 30 one-stop connections to western cities.

Further, many Northlanders have connections to Denver, like family and friends, Werner said, citing migration data.