Allegiant Airlines’ announcement that they were temporarily shutting down air service from St. Cloud Regional Airport caught people by surprise:

Allegiant Airlines will suspend its service between St. Cloud and Arizona from Aug. 14-Oct. 9, the company confirmed Thursday.

The news came in response to an inquiry from the St. Cloud Times. Allegiant Media Relations Manager Jessica Wheeler said the cost-cutting move is not unusual for the company that specializes in point-to-point flights to leisure destinations, although it’s more common on Allegiant’s Florida routes.

“It’s something we do as part of our business plan to keep costs low when we do fly,” Wheeler said.

She said the timing of the suspension is driven by the cyclical demand for leisure travel. Vacations tend to drop off as a new school year approaches, rebounding as holiday travel periods approach.

Based on the statistics, it looks like Allegiant isn’t having difficulty filling their flights:

During January and February, Allegiant handled 5,142 passenger departures and arrivals in St. Cloud, according to data requested by the Times. The data suggests the flights, on McDonnell-Douglas MD-80s that carry about 150 passengers, have been near capacity. Airlines generally don’t release passenger load information for specific routes.

The airport’s data shows use was fairly evenly split among travelers headed to Arizona and those coming to Minnesota: 2,686 going south in those two months and 2,466 headed north from Arizona.

Attracting St. Cloud to Chicago air service relies on a different dynamic. Airlines are significantly less likely to move into a market that doesn’t provide workforce training, especially pilots and mechanics. The healthier the pipelines for pilots and mechanics, the more attractive the market is to an airlines. This article illustrates how important that pipeline is:

In an email to prospective job seekers on Friday, American Eagle Airlines announced that it is offering a $5,000 signing bonus for newly hired pilots. At present, Eagle plans to hire 600 new pilots in 2013. New FAA rules require that new airline pilots meet Airline Transport Pilot license standards.

American Eagle notes that American Airlines, its parent company, is planning to hire 2,500 pilots over the next five years. Approximately half of the current list of Eagle pilots is expected to be hired by American or other major airlines.

The $5,000 bonus is paid at the beginning of training and requires a two year commitment to Eagle. According to Airline Pilot Central, American Eagle’s first year pay is $25 per hour with a 75 hour reserve guarantee. This works out to about $22,500 for the first year, not including the bonus. Pay is relatively flat for turboprop first officers, but FOs on jets, the majority of the fleet, will see an increase to $34 per hour and about $30,600 annually for the second year. Currently, the most junior captain has a hire date of May 2006, but as the major airlines ramp up their hiring, upgrades could potentially move much faster.

In short, Allegiant’s reason for its hiatus has nothing to do with St. Cloud’s ability to attract regional air service between St. Cloud and Chicago. If St. Cloud has a healthy aviation program, it stands a fighting shot at getting air service. If it doesn’t have a healthy aviation program, it can’t compete with other markets competing for regional air service.

Rather than shutting down St. Cloud State’s Aviation program, MnSCU should be talking about opening up a program to train air maintenance workers at the St. Cloud Technical and Community College. Strengthening, not eliminating, St. Cloud’s aviation workforce program is the only decision that makes sense.

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