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Changes coming to Alpena airport flight schedule

Courtesy Photo Crews at the Alpena County Regional Airport ready a commercial jet for boarding on Thursday. SkyWest Airlines — which operates as a Delta connection — recently entered into a new contract with Alpena County and added a flight to Minneapolis.

ALPENA — A pilot and staffing shortage has forced SkyWest Airlines to change its flight schedule at the Alpena County Regional Airport in its new two-year contract.

The federal government pays the airline to provide service because the airport is considered an Essential Air Service airport.

Due to the schedule change, the airline will offer flights to Minneapolis, with a brief stop in Sault Ste. Marie, but Alpena loses a morning flight to Detroit, which will limit the number of connecting flights available to local travelers.

The new Detroit flight will be late in the afternoon.

The change comes after the airport had its busiest July on record.

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz A flight schedule for Alpena County Regional Airport is shown, which includes departure and arrival times into Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

The new route will see a jet leave Detroit Metropolitan Airport at 8:25 a.m., arrive in Alpena at 9:34 a.m., and arrive at Chippewa County International Airport in Sault Ste. Marie at 10:51 a.m. The plane then departs for Minneapolis at 11:21 a.m. and arrives at 12:07 p.m.

The return flight from Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport will leave at 1:25 p.m., stop at CIU to drop off and pick up passengers, arrive in Alpena around 5:09 p.m., depart at 5:40 p.m.,and arrive back in Detroit at 6:50 p.m.

Tickets for the new route are available online.

Airport Manager Steve Smigelski said in an email that an ongoing pilot and staffing shortage — which has affected the entire aviation industry — forced SkyWest’s hand. He said the airline has already cut air service at 30 airports and Alpena is fortunate to still have air service.

Smigelski said local county, city, and economic development officials signed off on the deal.

Smigelski said SkyWest has told him that when, or if, the staffing shortage improves, it will review the tagging of other airports on the flight routes and are open to altering the schedule. He said the airport could have continued to provide flights to Detroit Metropolitan Airport, but Pellston would remain a tagged airport and that has been an issue.

A tagged flight is when an aircraft makes a stop in the first city and continues to the next.

“All of the Essential Air Service airports in Michigan had to be tagged and nobody is happy about it,” Smigelski said in his email. “Our only other choice is to remain with DTW-only service, but we would still be tagged with Pellston. When that happened during the last contract it was a nightmare because of the extra airport closures in Pellston because it receives a lot more snow, and their passengers were taking most of the seats on the jets.”

According to Smigelski, SkyWest is working hard to bolster its staffing numbers, especially pilots. He said the airline is starting its own charter service for younger pilots so they can accumulate flight hours to obtain the Flight 139 certification which allows them to pilot planes that have 30 seats or more.

Dennis Lennox is a frequent flier on SkyWest and utilizes many airports in Northern Michigan for his travel, particularly Alpena and Pellston.

He said so far this year, he has taken 90 flights and anticipates that number will climb to about 140 by December. In a letter to the Alpena County Board of Commissioners, he said the change of schedule will hurt the airports because more people will travel to larger airports, especially those who utilized the morning Detroit flight to catch connecting flights.

“I cannot stress enough how bad these changes are for northern Michigan,” Lennox said in his letter. “Not just your constituents or the regional community, but businesses that depend on commercial air service and, of course, the tourism industry. Who in their right mind is going to fly from Minneapolis, to Sault Ste. Marie, and then to Alpena? They’re going to go somewhere else and not visit Alpena. The same for your constituents. Who is going to fly from Alpena to Florida for vacation via Sault Ste. Marie and Minneapolis? They won’t. They’re going to drive to Detroit, Flint or Traverse City.”

Smigelski said there are many positives to the new schedule. He said the airport still has a flight to Detroit, and the indirect flight to Minneapolis opens up another large market where more connecting flight options are available.

“It’s true we do not have a direct flight to DTW in the morning, but passengers can still make any arrangement needed out of MSP for their final destinations,” Smigelski said. “Bear in mind that, according to SkyWest, most of our traffic goes west and about one-third goes south or to the east coast. That means for the majority of the passengers this is a better schedule.”

The addition of the Minneapolis route could lead to growth in the future, Smigelski said.

“If we can keep filling the flight to Detroit, and add passengers to Minnesota, it opens up the door to better service,” he said.

Last month, the airport in Alpena tallied 1,676 enplanements, pushing its yearly total to 7,035. That total is well above the 5,936 enplanements it had through July of last year.

An enplanement is a paying passenger.

If the airport reaches 10,000 enplanements, it receives a $1 million subsidy from the federal government for being an Essential Service Airport.

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