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Published September 13, 2013, 09:48 AM

Despite United’s departure, airport exec optimistic

Despite a significant federal grant to help its startup costs, United Airlines announced Wednesday that it will stop service between the Grand Forks International Airport and Denver a little more than a year after the route began.

By: John Hageman, Grand Forks Herald

Despite a significant federal grant to help its startup costs, United Airlines announced Wednesday that it will stop service between the Grand Forks International Airport and Denver a little more than a year after the route began.

In 2011, the Airport Authority was awarded a $300,000 federal grant to help attract another carrier. That grant, coupled with $200,000 from the city’s Growth Fund, went to United to help with its startup costs, airport Executive Director Patrick Dame said.

“Airlines incur a lot of cost to get a station up and running,” Dame said.

United, which started offering direct flights between Grand Forks and Denver in October 2012, said in a statement Wednesday that the “financial performance of the flights did not meet our expectations.” United spokeswoman Mary Clark declined to elaborate further Thursday.

Dame said the Small Community Air Service Development grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation has been used successfully previously. He said it helped launch Allegiant’s service here in 2008. Allegiant’s boardings in Grand Forks have increased from 16,500 in 2009 to 57,200 last year.

“We’ve had (the grant) in the past and they’ve been successful long-term,” Dame said.

Setback

Airport and local officials have tried to attract direct air service to Denver for some time. Grand Forks City Council President Hal Gershman, who was part of that push, said Wednesday they’ll step back and reevaluate their options for the future.

“We never stop with air service development,” Gershman said. “That is an ongoing effort.”

The service’s supporters fought a perception that it was more expensive than other routes to Denver. A search on travel websites Kayak.com and Orbitz.com shows round trips from Fargo to Denver on Delta can be significantly cheaper than United’s flights from Grand Forks to Denver. However, Delta’s Fargo trips are not nonstop and airline industry officials often caution against using such websites as an accurate comparison.

Dame said Thursday he didn’t expect United’s departure after Dec. 3 to have a major financial impact on the Airport Authority itself. He noted boarding figures at the airport have steadily climbed in recent years, from 80,700 in 2007 to 135,500 in 2012. United reported 4,282 boardings last year, and was projected to post 20,715 in 2013.

“We might see a small loss in seats for a short period, but I don’t think so,” Dame said. “This is one small setback in five years.”

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