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New airline to serve Duluth

Duluth International Airport soon will welcome a new airline.

At a 10 a.m. news conference Tuesday, Milwaukee-based Midwest Airlines is expected to announce plans to launch service to Duluth this spring.

A Midwest representative declined comment until the news conference when contacted by the News Tribune on Tuesday afternoon.

Brian Ryks, executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority, also said Tuesday he was unable to discuss specifics of the approaching news conference. However, he confirmed that a new carrier plans to begin service to Duluth, and that Mark Sixel, an airline consultant from Eugene, Ore., helped bring the airline to town.

Sixel also declined to confirm the airline's identity but said his recruiting efforts began with a visit to the new carrier in February 2006. He also has made pitches to two other airlines and said, "I think I have been able to make a good business case for all three to take a look at Duluth."

In December, Midwest announced plans to expand service with the help of an affiliate, SkyWest Airlines, based in St. George, Utah. As of April 2007, SkyWest plans to begin flying 15 to 25 Canadair Regional Jets under the Midwest Connect banner. The 50-seat airplanes will enable Midwest to crack several new markets, said Scott Dickson, senior vice president and chief marketing officer.

"In 2007, travelers will benefit from Midwest's most aggressive route expansion in recent years," he said in a statement issued Dec. 21. In addition to strengthening service to Milwaukee and Kansas City, Dickson said the enhanced fleet will enable Midwest to "add at least six new destinations and as many as 12 new routes."

Midwest and its affiliates now provide air service to 47 cities.

Duluth currently is served by Northwest Airlines, which offers service to its hubs in the Twin Cities and Detroit. Allegiant Air also offers two flights each week between Duluth and Las Vegas. It was not clear Tuesday where Midwest will fly from Duluth.

"Competition is almost always good; it stimulates the market," said Ryks.

He pointed out that when American Eagle briefly offered flights between Duluth and Chicago in 2004, Duluth International saw traffic increase to a record level.

Ryks said that having multiple carriers provides travelers with more options and can result in more competitive fares.

"Duluth is an underserved market," Sixel said.

But he also said that, as American Eagle discovered, vying with Northwest can be tough.

"Northwest has dominated the community for a long time, and it's difficult to come in and compete with them," Sixel said. "I've focused on finding carriers that can complement the service Northwest already provides."

He contends there's significant opportunity for more airlines to do business in Duluth.

Sixel noted that about half of area residents traveling by air drive to the Twin Cities rather than beginning their trips at Duluth International Airport. He also noted that Duluth's airfares are consistently higher than average, making it an attractive market for carriers.

Midwest has carved out a unique niche, largely by serving business travelers. Many of its aircraft feature spacious leather seats, and the carrier used to serve meals on real china. Midwest's meal service is less extravagant these days, but the airline remains known for its signature in-flight baking of chocolate chip cookies.

Midwest's roots trace back to 1948, when the paper company Kimberly-Clark Corp. assembled a fleet of corporate aircraft to fly people between its headquarters in Appleton, Wis., and its mills.

In 1969, K-C Aviation was formed to maintain the fleet.

In 1984, Kimberly-Clark and K-C Aviation launched a scheduled passenger service under the Midwest Express name. The airline dropped "Express" from its name in 2003.

Midwest's fleet includes 11 McDonnell Douglas MD-80 class jets and 25 Boeing 717s.

Recently, Midwest attracted the interest of Orlando, Fla.-based AirTran Holdings, which made an unsolicited offer to buy Midwest for $90 million in cash and stock Oct. 20. Midwest's board rejected the offer, but AirTran's overtures might not be finished.