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Plans for small town airport service on hold

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The airport in Marshall, Minnesota, recently expanded its runway to accomodate regular passenger service, which Mesaba Airlines was expected to provide next year. Now that Mesaba has filed for bankruptcy, that air service is in jeopardy. (Photo courtesy of the City of Marshall)
Major airlines are cutting back regional passenger services to smaller communities. At the same time, some cities say they need passenger service in order to grow. The southwest Minnesota community of Marshall expanded its airport runway with the promise that Northwest Airlines would begin flights using Mesaba Airlines, one of its regional carriers. Now that both carriers have declared bankruptcy the promise of expanded service is gone and city officials wonder if any other carrier will offer service.

Marshall, Minn. — For those who live in Marshall, Minnesota, the closest place to catch a plane is in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. That's a 90-mile drive, one way. The cheapest ticket out of Marshall means a drive to the Twin Cities, 150 miles away.

Marshall resident Jeff Kolnick flies somewhere once a month; sometimes for business and sometimes for pleasure. He estimates it costs him an additional $80 to $100 in gas and parking fees for each trip.

"It's almost impossible to get somebody to take you to the airport when you're 90 miles away, or 300 miles round trip to the Twin Cities. I mean that person has to be a very close friend," says Kolnick. "Then they have to pick you up again and take you back. And so just the cost of getting to the airport and leaving your car is substantial, so if the ticket is a little bit higher still it's OK."

Kolnick welcomes the idea of daily passenger flights to Marshall. It's something he says would make traveling easier. There has never been passenger service in Marshall. Only corporate and chartered planes use the airport now. Kolnick says he hopes the general public will benefit from the effort to make commercial plane travel available for businesses.

There's a substantial amount of business in the area that's more than adequate to financially support the service.
- Bob Byrnes, Marshall mayor

Daily passenger air service was almost a reality. Marshall's Mayor Bob Byrnes says Mesaba was scheduled to start flights to Marshall in April of 2006. Mesaba flies to smaller cities for Northwest Airlines. Northwest Airlines filed for bankruptcy in September and cut it's payments to Mesaba and the number of flights Mesaba flies. Now Mesaba has also filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Mayor Byrnes estimates as many as 40,000 people would fly out of Marshall each year. He says the city received a federal grant for $480,000 to market and subsidize regional air service.

"There's a substantial amount of business in the area that's more than adequate to support financially the service," says Byrnes. "If that business, for whatever reason that has been projected, isn't there, (the grant) provides a subsidy to the carrier that was counting on the business that was in our business plan."

Marshall's population is 12,735. It's not the residents in town that are demanding air service -- it's the three major employers in town. The business plan is written to provide better air service for Schwan Food Co., US Bancorp, and Archer Daniels Midland.

Schwan Food Company has its own plane and shuttles employees daily to the Twin Cities airport. Schwan's employs 22,000 people around the world and 2,300 work in Marshall.

Steve Linstrom, Schwan's vice-president of corporate communication, says the daily shuttles are for people who do business in Minneapolis or board flights out of the Twin Cities.

"If we had commercial air service here in Marshall, then we could avail upon that service rather than transporting those people back and forth," says Linstrom.

Linstrom isn't promising Schwan's would use the commercial airline. He says it would depend on how much a ticket costs and whether it's cheaper than running their own shuttle.

Mayor Bob Byrnes says the town suffers without regional air service because it's essential as an economic development tool to attract new businesses. It doesn't look promising that Northwest Airlines will have Mesaba provide new service to Marshall. But Byrnes says the $480,000 grant is available to any carrier that will fly into his city. He says they have three years to use the money.