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RST sees growing success with new Denver flights as vaccinations increase

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ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) -- It's been almost six months since the first flight took off from Rochester to Denver.

The new service through the Rochester International Airport (RST) launched on Oct. 1. At first, it was pretty successful, according to RST officials.

Then the COVID-19 surge hit in mid-November. Minnesota reached record-high case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths.

Since the start of 2021, things have improved for RST. More travelers are taking the Denver flights every month. In March, on average, those daily flights were about 70% full.

Denver isn't the only destination receiving more interest. RST is seeing rising demand overall lately, according to RST Marketing & Communications Manager Tiana O'Connor.

"A lot of people are beginning to get vaccinated," O'Connor said. "And so with that I think comes a renewed confidence in being able to set those travel plans that you might have canceled or put off all of last year."

As expected, passenger numbers remain much lower than before the pandemic. RST is currently seeing about 45% of passenger traffic overall compared to 2019. O'Connor said that number is close to the industry average right now.

The airport was able to recruit new service to a western hub thanks to a $750,000 federal grant awarded last February. In August, RST announced the Denver nonstop United Express flights, which are operated by SkyWest Airlines.

RST also offers nonstop service to Minneapolis, Chicago and Atlanta. Officials are hoping to add more destinations down the road, like Dallas and Phoenix.

Those decisions are ultimately up to the airlines, which have mostly held off on adding new service during the pandemic. Some have eliminated service as the industry has been rocked by the pandemic.

"Now, we're at a point where the industry is starting to see such an uptick in travel demand that those conversations can resume," O'Connor said.

O'Connor said even right now, RST officials are in contact with airlines about future expansion opportunities, but those discussions can take years.

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Byron Tollefson

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