It might cost less to fly from St. Cloud

St. Cloud is getting one more chance — some say its last chance — to prove that it deserves airline service to Chicago.

Tomorrow, local leaders will hold a ribbon-cutting to mark the inaugural United Airlines service to Chicago. It’s not really the big airlines; it’s actually SkyWest, a “hidden airline,” but beggars can’t be chosers and St. Cloud officials have been begging mightily.

The St. Cloud Times reports it took nearly two years for the local airport to attract a Chicago-route carrier, even though it has a $1 million pot of federal and local money every quarter to give to an airline to stop in St. Cloud.

Airport manager Bill Towle tells the Times it’s time for local passengers to put up or shut up.

“They know they have to or it won’t work,” Towle said. “Our goal is for them to be within $100 of whatever the MSP fare is. You can’t drive down there and park for $100. But the bottom line is people need to use the service, regardless of the dollar amount, or it goes away. If you believe this air service is important to the economic vitality of St. Cloud, and the research shows it can have a $17 million impact on the Central Minnesota economy, you need to fly on it whether it’s $100 or $200 difference. The economic impact outweighs the $100 you’re going to save.”

That suggests that local passengers have an obligation to pay more to fly, purely on the basis of civic responsibility.

But so far, that’s not a decision they have to make. A roundtrip ticket on one of two flights to O’Hare on Skywest is going for $330. Flights from Minneapolis/St. Paul are $364 on United, a price matched by Delta for flights leaving at roughly the same time (flights that aren’t are going for $460). Southwest charges roughly the same under its cheapest fare, but nearly $500 in business class, and only flies to Midway.

It’s a better deal for the really short-notice flyer. Tomorrow’s Chicago flight from St. Cloud is $420 roundtrip, compared to $556 in the Cities.

For travelers booking far in advance, a St. Cloud flight to Chicago costs $210 round trip. The Twin Cities-originated flights go for $232. Again, advantage: St. Cloud.

Theoretically, that should prompt frugal people in the middle to drive to St. Cloud and make connections via Chicago rather than driving to the Twin Cities. A United/SkyWest connection to New York, for example, runs $804 from St. Cloud, and $939 from the Twin Cities (non stop). The same route next week will cost $1,064 on Delta.

For our example, we depart next Tuesday and arrive home next Friday. In addition to the $260 in air fare, a Twin Cities passenger would also pay $80 to park. Parking at St. Cloud’s airport is free.

At least at the start, it’s a sweet deal. Which is why local leaders are correct. If it doesn’t work, St. Cloud’s airport will be a ghost town.

For tomorrow’s big flight, only 13 seats have been sold.