Delta Air Lines is shrinking its flying to small cities in the nation's midsection, saying it can't make money on flights that are sometimes completely empty.
Delta said Friday its move would affect 24 cities, many of which are not served by any other airline. There's a risk they could lose air service altogether, although some of the routes are likely to be taken over by regional airlines. And Delta said it will ask for a federal subsidy to keep some of the flights.
The affected flights connect Delta's hubs to small cities in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
Most of the affected flights are on Delta's 34-seat Saab turboprops, which it is phasing out by the end of this year. Higher fuel prices have made it difficult to operate small planes profitably, because the fuel bill is divided among a small number of passengers. Even the next-larger option, the 50-seat regional jets flown by Delta and other airlines, is often unprofitable for the same reason. Delta is retiring many of those planes, too.
Delta said it is losing $14 million a year on the flights included in Friday's announcement. Their occupancy averaged just 52 percent, compared to a system-wide average of 83 percent last year. The average occupancy out of Thief River Falls, Minn., was just 12 percent, Delta said. The flight from Greenville, Miss., runs just 27.6 percent full. Some flights have been completely empty, it said.
Flights in 16 of the cities on Delta's list are subsidized by the federal Extended Air Service program. The Transportation Department solicits bids from airlines to see how much money it would take to get them to serve a particular city. Delta said it is looking for regional haulers, including Great Lakes Aviation, to take over those routes.
Great Lakes operates 19-seat planes, a size that might operate profitably where a larger plane couldn't. A Great Lakes spokeswoman declined to comment on the possibility of taking over the Delta routes.
The Transportation Department can make an airline keep serving a city even after its subsidy contract runs out, spokesman Bill Mosley said.
It's theoretically possible that no airlines would bid to serve a city. "It's very rare," Mosely said. "We would rebid if that were the case."
The city of Bemidji in northwestern Minnesota doesn't currently get a subsidy, but Delta says it wants one to keep flying there. Right now one of Delta's regional feeder partners operates three 50-seat regional jets per day between Bemidji and Delta's hub in Minneapolis, a 4 1/2 hour drive away.
Bemidji illustrates why airlines have historically sought out travelers in small cities. Such flights attract more than their share of business travelers, who tend to pay more. And if their flight starts on Delta, they'll generally stick with Delta all the way to Chicago or New York.
"So they're paying for a bigger ticket somewhere else," said Harold M. Van Leeuwen Jr., the manager of the Bemidji airport. "Bemidji has been a good location for them."
Occupancy on the Bemidji flights was 59 percent last year. Van Leeuwen said he expects that either Delta or some other airline will continue to serve the city.
The 24 cities are territory that was once dominated by Northwest Airlines, which Delta bought in 2008.
One of the cities on Delta's list is Butte, Mont. Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester wrote to Delta CEO Richard Anderson to say that a federal subsidy for flying to Butte abuses the intent of the program.
Anderson wrote to the two senators in 2008 to say Delta would serve every Montana city that it and Northwest served at the time of the merger. "Of course, the continued rapid increase in our fuel costs could have a separate and distinct impact on our entire network that has nothing to do with this merger," Anderson wrote in the letter, which was also signed by Northwest CEO Doug Steenland.
Also on Friday, John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, 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.
The bill would end subsidies for 10 cities that are 90 miles or less from a medium or large hub airport: Athens, Ga.; Morgantown, W.V.; Jamestown, N.Y.; Bradford, Pa.; Hagerstown, Md.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Johnstown, Pa.; Franklin-Oil City, Pa.; Lancaster, Pa. and Jackson, Tenn.
It also caps subsidies at $1,000 per passenger, effectively eliminating three more cities: Ely, Nev. (with a current subsidy of $3,720 per passenger), Alamogordo-Holloman AFB, N.M., ($1,563), and Glendive, Mont. ($1,358).
Associated Press Writer Joan Lowy in Washington contributed to this report.