THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. — Heather Borgen’s in limbo.
After working 40-plus hours a week for five years at Hertz Car Rental in this northern Minnesota town, Borgen was laid off when the airport’s only commercial airline was grounded in February. If and when the airline returns, she plans to do the same — but that means she’s out of work for at least four months.
“You have no idea how you’re supposed to act, what you’re supposed to be doing — you know, you try to find work and nobody’s going to hire you for two or three months at max,” she said. “They know you’re going to go back to the job that you like; the job that you know.”
Great Lakes Airlines, a small regional carrier, suspended its service in February to Thief River Falls, where employees and employers said the air service was a crucial link to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and beyond. The airline also suspended service to other small towns across the Midwest such as Jamestown and Devils Lake, N.D., Ironwood, Mich., and Fort Dodge, Iowa.
Many others, including Pierre and Watertown, S.D., have seen diminished service as cancellation rates have soared. The regional airline industry blames new federal regulations for pilots aimed at increasing airline safety.
In Thief River Falls, the airline’s suspension has cost a handful of residents their jobs and hindered businesses.
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The city of 9,000 is home to international companies such as Arctic Cat and Digi-Key Corp., an Amazon-like distributor with 2,800 employees in an operation that sends electronic components to half a million customers in 145 countries.
“As a global, $1.5 billion business, travel is essential, especially since we’re here in the middle of nowhere,” said Digi-Key’s corporate communications director Michelle Gjerde. Clients fly in from around the world on any given day, she said.
Great Lakes Airlines and the regional airline industry have said the regulations that require all commercial pilots have 1,500 hours of flying time combined with record retirements of long-time pilots are leaving them without enough people to fly their planes. Experts said Great Lakes, which did not return repeated calls for comment, has been hit the hardest by the new regulations but also say its low starting pay has contributed.
Regional airlines had more than 40,000 cancelled flights nationwide in the first quarter of 2014 – up from 14,000 in 2012, according to MasFlight, which tracks industry statistics. The industry has said a harsh winter also increased cancellations.
Jim Higgins, an aviation professor at the University of North Dakota, said the time it takes to get new pilots through the system — and now to accrue 1,500 hours of flight time — means problems at regional airlines will probably persist through the decade.
“Unfortunately, I think most of small-town America is going to have to get used to the idea there’s going to be some longer-term disruptions in their service, and it’s a sad thing,” he said.
Great Lakes’ suspension comes as Thief River Falls is thriving. The school system recently spent $56 million upgrading its buildings. The annual home show drew record crowds. A new 55-room hotel opened across the street from the 800,000-square-feet Digi-Key plant.
But without a fully functioning airline, the area can be a tough sell.
“You fly candidates into another city, have them rent a car and come in, and then tell them how great it is to live here when it’s so inconvenient for them to come and interview,” said Ryan Walseth, who owns a travel agency in town.
Although about 80% of the bookings out of Thief River Falls were for business travel, Pat Braaten, the Great Lakes station manager in town, said she had frequent flyers that relied on the airport to get medical treatment in the Minneapolis area every week. And the snowbirds who move south for the winter now have to travel at least to Grand Forks, which is 60 miles away on a two-lane road that’s often treacherous in the winter.
Braaten and another full-time employee at Great Lakes have been out of work while the airline has been grounded, and eight other part-time employees stopped working as well.
“I understand why the regulations went in,” she said, “but it’s hard to take, because it’s really, really affecting a lot of people.”
Great Lakes officials have said they plan to return as early as June, but with reduced service that will allow flights with only nine passengers. And if the company does return, some have said it will take a long time to regain the trust of passengers and rebuild their customer base.
“People are upset,” said Randy Hultgren, publisher of the Thief River Falls Times, where business is good. “It’s not so much that they have to have Great Lakes here. They just want service. They don’t care who it is, they just want one. It’s a progressive town and you have to have an airport.”
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