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Source: Duluth News Tribune

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Passenger travel at the Duluth International Airport was up 5 percent in the first quarter of 2013, continuing a growth trend started last year.

A total of 77,711 passengers went through the airport in January, February and March, compared to about 74,000 passengers during the same period in 2012, according to numbers released Monday.

The increase came with the opening of the new airport terminal in January. It continues the upswing started last year when the airport posted its busiest year with numbers up 9 percent over 2011.

Tom Werner, executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority, said the growth means passengers are supporting the services offered. That’s a good sign, considering that preliminary results of a “market leakage” study commissioned by the Airport Authority show that nearly 60 percent of

Duluth-area air travelers fly from Minneapolis-St. Paul or other cities instead of Duluth.

Convincing more people to fly to and from Duluth is critical not only to keeping the current flight options but also to getting more added.

It already is working.

Delta Airlines, which serves Duluth with flights to Detroit and the Twin Cities, announced Monday some upgrades to its Duluth service. It will upgrade its 5:30 a.m. daily flight from Duluth to the Twin Cities from a

CRJ-200, a 50-seat regional jet, to a larger 76-seat

Embraer E-175 with economy and first-class cabin seating.

“A lot of the airlines in the industry are upgrading their flights from regional jets and integrating newer aircraft into their fleets,” Werner said. “What’s really cool about them is they’re getting away from compact 50-seaters. They’re bringing back first-class cabin seating.”

While it’s part of the airlines’ normal cycle of replacing older passenger planes, it benefits Duluth by offering 12 of the 76 seats as first class, he said.

“That’s extremely important for our business travelers,” he said.

Delta also will add an additional flight, using a 76-seat CRJ-900 jet, on higher volume days such as the days around Grandma’s Marathon.

“We couldn’t be happier with these positive changes as it provides more seats and options for passengers as we head into our peak travel season,” Werner said earlier in a statement.