Long-time residents of Cheyenne, Wyo., might remember the days when Frontier Airlines flew cushy commercial jets out of the city’s small regional airport. That was back in the 1970s and earlier, when the Federal Aviation Administration required airlines to prove they were servicing rural communities in order to keep their certifications. When the FAA deregulated the airline industry in 1978, the big jets took off from Cheyenne and didn’t come back. Instead, airlines concentrated on larger, more profitable hubs, leaving small airports around the country without dedicated commercial air service.
To avoid stranding rural residents, that same year the FAA started paying commercial airlines to fly into small towns. Not all airlines were interested, but some, like Cheyenne-based Great Lakes Airlines, found a niche in flying to Essential Air Service communities, as the program is known. Great Lakes is now the most heavily-subsidized airline in the country and the largest provider of Essential Air Service flights, receiving 42 percent of its revenue from the federal program. It services 13 states in the West and upper Midwest.
Yet despite its broad reach, Great Lakes passengers have recently taken to calling the airline “Great Mistakes.” Stories abound in places of cancelled flights, lost baggage and missed connections. According to WyoFile:
Rob Godby, an economist at the University of Wyoming, told WyoFile he once hosted a visitor who bought a ticket to fly out of Laramie to Denver. The flight to Denver originated in Worland, and would stop in Laramie to pick up passengers. But when Godby took his visitor to the Laramie airport, the plane never arrived. Great Lakes employees explained that the plane, “forgot to land.”
Great Lakes blames the service problems in Wyoming and elsewhere on a major pilot shortage caused by new FAA regulations. Last August, the agency began requiring all co-pilots to have 1,500 training hours before stepping into the cockpit of a commercial airline. Previously, co-pilots of smaller airlines only needed 250 hours. The change came in response to a pilot error that resulted in a 2009 crash of a regional jet flying to Buffalo, N.Y. Fifty people died in that crash.
Since the new rules came into effect, Great Lakes has had trouble hiring and retaining employees. According to the Associated Press, in August the airline had to lay off 30 co-pilots who were just short of 1,500 hours. And co-pilots who do complete the extended training on their own are less willing to work for low-paying regional airlines like Great Lakes now that they have the experience to work elsewhere. Before the new law, co-pilots would work at places like Great Lakes until they could accumulate the amount of flying hours needed to move to a larger airline. Now, they jump straight to the big leagues, since they have to get the requisite hours anyway. As noted by one air industry blogger, “would a pilot with 1500 hours rather go to Great Lakes & fly a prop, or go to a Republic, Mesa, or SkyWest and fly a shiny jet?”
The pilot shortage has caused Great Lakes to cut back on its service. In January, the airline stopped serving Moab and ditched five additional airports, though none in the West. And it’s not just Great Lakes: regional airlines around the country say they’re having a hard time hiring and retaining co-pilots now.
The service problems call into question the economic viability of the entire Essential Air Service program, which conservatives have tried to place on the chopping block many times in recent national budget battles. “Although this program is called the Essential Air Service, in my view it’s far from essential,” Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., said in 2011, the year a standoff over the service’s funding shut down the FAA for nearly two weeks.
Recent reforms to the program have eliminated some of the more egregious subsidies, like the more than $3,000 per passenger that Great Lakes received for servicing Ely, Nev., where flights were occasionally completely empty. Now, to qualify for Essential Air Service, a community must: be at least 90 miles from the nearest medium or large airport; average more than 10 passengers per day (unless it’s more than 175 miles from an airport); have an average subsidy of less than $1,000 per passenger and have been part of the program between September 2010 and 2011, the year before the reforms were passed. The new rules don’t apply to Hawaii or Alaska, where 82 percent of communities cannot be reached by road.
In the West, the new requirements have caused two Montana airports to lose air service entirely. Montana is the most reliant on Essential Air Service of all Western states, with the most passengers using the service, highest average per-passenger subsidy and highest total annual subsidy.
Critics point out that as the U.S. continues to urbanize, Essential Air Service serves fewer people. In much of the lower 48, it would take just as long to drive to a larger airport than to fly there on a subsidized flight from a small town. And because Great Lakes service can be so spotty, many rural residents often drive to larger airports, anyway, to avoid the hassle. As austerity becomes the norm in Washington, and if cancelled and delayed flights continue to tarnish the reputation of Great Lakes and the entire program, rural airline subsidies could end up at risk of being killed once again.
Emily Guerin is a correspondent at High Country News. She tweets @guerinemily.