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By JIM ANDERSON
IRON MOUNTAIN - The U.S. Department of Transportation has selected SkyWest Airlines to provide subsidized Essential Air Service at Dickinson County's Ford Airport.
SkyWest, operating with a Delta Airlines code share and using 50-seat Canadair Regional Jet 200 aircraft, will provide a minimum of 13 round trips a week to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Seven of those Dickinson County flights will be nonstop and the others will have stops in Rhinelander, Wis.
"We're very pleased with this," said Tim Howen, the county's Ford Airport manager.
Delta Connection will continue to provide Essential Air Service (EAS) at Ford Airport until SkyWest inaugurates full service, according to a DOT order issued Tuesday.
No timeline for the transition has been set, though Howen speculated it may take place within a couple of months.
Because SkyWest will be operating as a Delta-designated carrier, passengers should see no changes in the ticketing process, Howen said.
The only significant change will be a switch from Detroit to Minneapolis-St. Paul as the hub, he added.
SkyWest submitted its EAS proposal for Iron Mountain-Kingsford and Rhinelander as an inseparable package bid. Rhinelander will receive a minimum of 14 nonstop round trips a week.
The combined annual subsidy rate for Iron Mountain-Kingsford and Rhinelander is $4.03 million - $2.51 million at Iron Mountain-Kingsford and $1.52 million at Rhinelander. The DOT's order will be in effect for two years after SkyWest begins service.
SkyWest, based in St. George, Utah, operates more than 1,700 flights each day to 160 destinations throughout North America.
The only other viable bid came from Great Lakes Aviation Ltd. of Cheyenne, Wyo.
Great Lakes proposed using its recently established Minneapolis-St. Paul hub, offering three nonstop roundtrips daily at Ford Airport on 19-seat Beech 1900D's. The proposed annual subsidy was nearly $1.86 million.
While the Iron Mountain-Kingsford bid from Great Lakes was cheaper, the DOT said it made sense to accept SkyWest's packaged bid with Rhinelander.
"Selecting Great Lakes at Iron Mountain would require us to either re-bid Rhinelander or select Great Lakes at Rhinelander, too," said Susan L. Kurland, assistant secretary for aviation and internal affairs. "If we were to re-bid Rhinelander on a stand-alone basis, the apparent savings at Iron Mountain would be illusory because the cost of serving Rhinelander on a stand-alone basis would almost certainly be higher than via the linear routing proposed by SkyWest."
In addition, Kurland said, both communities strongly supported the selection of SkyWest.
The DOT is concerned, nonetheless, with the level of subsidy SkyWest requires at Iron Mountain-Kingsford.
"While SkyWest's proposal at the community may offer more capacity and allow for more passengers, we expect the community to proactively work with SkyWest to increase passenger levels and, thus, reduce subsidy levels in the next two years," Kurland said.
Besides Iron Mountain-Kingsford and Rhinelander, the DOT has selected SkyWest as the EAS carrier at two northern Minnesota cities - Brainerd and International Falls. Annual subsidy rates for those communities, also a package bid, will be $1.36 million at Brainerd and $1.11 million at International Falls.
EAS is a federal program that subsidizes airlines to serve rural communities that otherwise would not receive scheduled air service.
Under SkyWest's proposal, the subsidy rate per passenger at Iron Mountain-Kingsford is estimated at $114, compared to $33 at Rhinelander, $37 at International Falls and $48 at Brainerd.
Atlanta-based Delta Airlines (or a subsidiary) has been the EAS carrier at Ford Airport since June 2008. More than a year ago, the airline gave notice that it intended to leave a number of EAS markets, including Iron Mountain-Kingsford.
In November 2011, Great Lakes was awarded an EAS Ford Airport bid to provide 18 nonstop round trips per week to Minneapolis at an annual subsidy $1.7 million. However, after being awarded the bid, the airline asked the DOT to issue a new request for proposals for Iron Mountain-Kingsford and three other EAS routes - Rhinelander, International Falls and Brainerd.
Jim Anderson's email address is email@example.com.