With American Airlines service ending, local leaders strive to restore flights to Dubuque

Commercial flights at Dubuque Regional Airport will end this week — at least for now.

Air service from American Airlines ends at the airport on Wednesday, Sept. 7. The airport’s only commercial carrier was offering twice-daily flights between Dubuque and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

In June, the company announced the coming end of service in Dubuque and three other cities due to a shortage of pilots.

However, Dubuque community leaders are focused on restoring air service to the city.

“This is the number-one issue that everyone is talking about in the community at the moment,” said Molly Grover, president and CEO of Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce. “The pilot shortage is not something that’s going to quickly fix itself. There’s no one silver-bullet approach. We have to look at how we approach this situation to make sure we are going to achieve our goals.”

Airport Director Todd Dalsing stressed that it will not be closed once American Airlines ends service and that other operations will remain unaffected.

The airport will continue to serve corporate, charter and private aircrafts. Dalsing also noted that the airport still will be able to handle events such as Honor Flights or planes related to the Major League Baseball game at the Field of Dreams.

“We will still be the busiest airport in Iowa in regards to aircraft operations, thanks to a strong general aviation community that includes the University of Dubuque aviation program and includes local and corporate smaller aircrafts,” he said.

However, he said an economic impact will be felt, and the airport will lose the revenue from rates and charges related to American Airlines flights. He also said American Airlines employees will be displaced, though those employees have received offers to work at other airports.

“When you think about this communitywide, there’s Transportation Security Administration, TSA, screeners,” he said. “There’s restaurants, rental cars, Uber, Lyft, all these other people that worked at the airport or relied on the airport for employment.”

The decision also will be felt by the business community that utilized the airport for work-related travel.

Katie Thomas, president of Honkamp Krueger & Co. P.C., said the firm typically had employees or visitors flying in and out of the Dubuque airport every week.

“We’re disappointed,” she said of the end of commercial air service. “Now, we’re flying out of Cedar Rapids, Moline, Madison. It’s an additional cost and additional time. It’s really inconvenient.”

She also noted that the firm was excited about the prospect of potentially having westbound flights out of the airport.

In February 2020, Dubuque received a $775,000 federal grant that officials planned to use to add westbound flights. Grover said the grant money is valid through 2026, and the opportunity for western flights still is being discussed with airlines.

Looking ahead, she said, members of the Air Service Task Force — which is made up of local leaders and elected officials — have a three-pronged approach to restore local air service.

First, she said conversations with commercial carriers have been ongoing to restore a flight connecting Dubuque with a major airport hub. Another approach is working with ultra low-cost flight carriers to set up a flight to a leisure destination.

Grover said the most creative of the three approaches is to establish a nationwide coalition of communities like Dubuque that have had air service reduced or stopped. In July, the DRA announced that Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce was the recipient of a $125,000 mission grant toward establishing the coalition.

“The united message, we hope, will result in a change or amended or new policies that address service to rural markets such as Dubuque,” Grover said.

Rick Dickinson, president and CEO of Greater Dubuque Development Corp., said he was hopeful that Dubuque could be a leader in bringing together communities to restore air service to rural places.

“It seems to me to be the best approach,” he said. “Before now, we always stood alone and hoped for the best, and as a result, we now have lost commercial air service. But that’s no fault of anyone in the community. I commend the chamber for their leadership on the Air Service Task Force. They’re doing everything they can to ensure commercial air service.

“After a $20-plus million investment, we probably have the finest airport in the Midwest and now, no air service. It makes absolutely zero sense.”

Dickinson said the coalition could lobby legislators to ensure air service.

“My personal view is that the elimination of air service is an economic assault on Dubuque and, for that matter, all of rural America,” he said. “Assuring that our citizens and businesses in rural America can have equivalent air service to metros is a systemic failure of Congress to care about what’s going on in the Heartland. It’s difficult to overstate the negative impact of this failure of Congress to leverage legacy carriers and subsidize service, if necessary.”

Restoring air service also was among the 2022-24 top priorities decided on by the Dubuque City Council during goal-setting sessions last month. Mayor Brad Cavanagh stressed that reaching that goal will require that lots of people from the community are involved in finding a solution.

“We need a connection to the rest of the country, and we have got to have that ability for business and leisure travelers to get where they need to go from Dubuque,” he said. “Frankly, I think we earned that from our performance as a city.”