Delta leaving Great Falls – New server will add flights, but plans to use smaller planes

Delta Air Lines will hand over its business in Great Falls and four other Montana cities to Utah-based SkyWest Airlines.

Tribune Staff Writer

The move, set to take place in January, means Great Falls passengers will have three additional daily flights to Salt Lake City, a Delta Air Lines hub. Those flights will be served, however, by smaller SkyWest aircraft.

In addition, Delta’s 13 Great Falls employees will either have to move or look for a new employer, which could include SkyWest.

The Great Falls flight changes are a piece of an overhaul of flights to Delta’s Salt Lake City hub that was announced Wednesday.

Delta spokeswoman Katie Connell said the airline hasn’t met performance goals for some time in Great Falls, Helena, Billings, Kalispell, Missoula, and Spokane and Pasco, Wash.

"Those markets have been underperforming since before Sept. 11, 2001," Connell said.

In general airline business dropped dramatically after terrorists hijacked four commercial flights, killing all passengers, themselves and thousands at the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

SkyWest is a contracted Delta Air Lines carrier, which means passengers can board SkyWest planes in airports such as Great Falls and make connections with Delta Flights at hubs, including Salt Lake City.

"There will be a better selection of flights, which will benefit our customers in those markets," Connell said. "And the benefit for Delta will be a more efficient hub, with planes moving at fuller capacity."

In Great Falls, Delta currently has four daily flights to and from Salt Lake City — two are served by Delta 737 128-passenger jets and two by 50-seat SkyWest Bombardier Canadair regional jets.

All the flights are serviced by Delta employees in Great Falls, and Frequent Fliers receive mileage points on all flights from Delta.

In January, the seven SkyWest flights from Great Falls to Salt Lake City will be served by the 50-seat planes.

The move should be healthy for the Great Falls airline market, said Michael Morrison, president of D.A. Davidson Travel Co. in Great Falls.

"We are not losing daily seating capacity and will get more arrival and departure options," he said.

As for whether passengers like the smaller planes, Morrison said past experience shows it will probably go smoothly.

When SkyWest started flying regional planes to Salt Lake City for Delta in Great Falls a year and a half ago, he was surprised that the only comments he got were good.

"At first, people weren’t familiar with the planes, but they found you can stand up in them, you still get cabin service, they are quiet, and they are newer than many of the large planes," Morrison said.

"I think the reality is that if we want frequency of flights, we have to get comfortable with smaller jets," he added.

Delta installed a new $750,000 passenger boarding bridge in Great Falls two years ago that is longer, which means the incline passenger have to walk down to load the smaller planes is less steep.

Butte went through the same transition nine yeas ago, when Delta replaced two daily flights to Salt Lake City with four regional flights served today by SkyWest.

"If you asked the community, they will tell you we’d never want to go back," said Rick Griffith, Butte’s airport manager.

"More frequency in flights increased the number of people boarding planes in Butte by 40 percent prior to Sept. 11, 2001," he said. "And since then, our numbers are still up from 1994."

Great Falls International Airport Director Cynthia Schultz said she expects positive results in Great Falls too.

"Right now if you want to travel back East on Delta’s morning flights from Salt Lake City, you have to leave Great Falls on the 6:30 a.m. flight," she said. "We are being told after January, there will be three SkyWest morning flights to Salt Lake."

Connell said exact departure times for the new flights are not set yet and will be announced in a few weeks.

Great Falls Delta employees contacted by the Tribune declined to comment on Wednesday’s announcement.

However, Connell said those employees will be given several options, including transferring to other Delta locations, accepting early retirement incentives or severance packages.

There is a plan in place so those employees can apply for jobs with SkyWest too, said SkyWest spokeswoman Alison Gemmell.

In Montana, 50 Delta Air Lines employees will be affected by the move.

Bozeman, Delta’s only Montana market meeting performance goals, will retain its Delta flights to Salt Lake City, along with Delta employees. It will also get one additional SkyWest flight to Salt Lake.

Billings will get one more flight to Salt Lake and Helena, Missoula and Kalispell will each get three more. Delta is turning all operations in those cities over to SkyWest too.

Nationwide, 200 Delta employees’ jobs will be disrupted by the change, the bulk of which will be in Salt Lake City.

In addition to the changes in Montana, Delta announced it will add two daily flights from Salt Lake City to Detroit, a new destination.

Delta flights will also be added between Salt Lake City and Tucson, Ariz.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Oakland, Orange County and Ontario, Calif.; Minneapolis; Oklahoma City; Tulsa, Okla.; Omaha, Neb.; Rapid City, S.D.; and Washington, D.C. Dulles Airport.

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