Even though it has a small rural airport with few filled flights and is closer to Canada than the Twin Cities, Thief River Falls is a travel hub for several local businesses such as Arctic Cat.
That's why airport manager Joe Hedrick was stunned by Friday's news that Delta Air Lines will ditch his northwestern Minnesota airport as well as ones in Brainerd and International Falls.
"I'm unhappy, to say the least," he said. "Delta has been serving Thief River Falls for many years. There are a lot more business travelers in Thief River Falls than they are giving credit to."
In addition to abandoning service to the three cities, Delta announced Friday that its future at Bemidji and Hibbing could be uncertain, too. The airports are in 24 underperforming small markets that include Jamestown, N.D., Sioux City, Iowa, and Aberdeen, S.D., which Delta also could drop.
It's part of larger consolidating and cost-cutting from Delta -- and likely Continental/United, US Airways and American Airlines, industry experts say -- due to rising fuel costs and a slowed economy.
"There will be another shoe to drop," said Vaughn Cordle a chief analyst with AirlineForecasts, a Washington, D.C.-based investment research firm. "It provides further evidence that the large network airlines will have to consolidate more."
It also points to further erosion of Delta's presence in Minnesota. Last month the airline announced that it would move several hundred training and technical jobs from Minnesota to Atlanta to save money, although employees could keep their jobs if they relocated.
That decision, which drew criticism from state political leaders, underscored fears expressed in the wake of Delta's merger with Northwest Airlines that it would lead Delta to whittle away at its Minnesota presence. Delta says it remains committed to its Minneapolis-St. Paul hub.
For the cities losing Delta service, there's a small chance they could lose all commercial air service, Hedrick said, if no one bids on them and U.S. legislators cut subsidies that help airlines serve less viable markets.
On Friday, House Transportation Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., added a provision to a must-pass bill to keep the Federal Aviation Administration in business that includes eliminating subsidized air service to 13 small cities and caps subsidies at $1,000 per passenger.
In Delta's announcement on Friday, the company said the cuts were needed due to the retirement of Saab planes, small planes the company is phasing out, and to curb a loss of $14 million each year from providing service to the 24 markets.
"A lot of what we're doing is because of the fleet retirements and the low level of demand in these areas," said Delta spokeswoman Kristin Baur.
Subsidies from the federal Essential Air Service program help pay for flying in 16 of the 24 cities. Friday's announcement triggers a 90-day window for the Department of Transportation to accept bids from other airlines for those subsidies -- thus allowing continued air service -- if Delta pulls out.
Great Lakes Aviation has expressed interest in bidding for Brainerd and International Falls, leading Delta to exit both markets, while Thief River Falls is unprofitable, Baur said.
Meanwhile, Delta will ask for federal subsidies in Bemidji and seven other cities that are currently not subsidized because it can't afford to keep flying to those cities without it.
Bemidji Regional Airport Executive Director Harold Van Leeuven isn't worried that Delta won't bid.
"We are a profitable site," he said. "Would Delta want another carrier in the middle of the state?"
Of the five Minnesota airports on Delta's list, Bemidji is the largest with 25,000 boarders this year, Van Leeuven said. They're mostly business and government travelers that on average fill 59 percent of plane capacity, Van Leeuven said.
In Hibbing, where flights have an average occupancy of 39 percent, Delta is looking to continue service with increased subsidies.
Thief River Falls isn't so lucky. The northwestern airport about five hours north of the Twin Cities has planes departing on average with only 12 percent of seats filled. Last year the airport served about 2,500 people, Hedrick said. That was down slightly from 2009, but he said it had the ability to grow with many local businesses relying on the airport for travel and recruiting local travelers who are opting instead to fly out of the Twin Cities, Fargo, Grand Forks or Bemidji.
His message to local businesses and travelers: "Let's show Delta there is a market," he said, "and it is worth keeping."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141