Airports in the rural West are getting squeezed


Starting sometime in May my only option for flying from Moab, Utah, to a regional hub will be to get on a Brasilia 30-seat turboprop (Great Lakes Airlines) that flies over the heart of the Rockies to Denver.

Until then, we have Beechcraft 1900s that fly to Salt Lake City. Both of these are venerable aircraft that have served small towns in the mountains for decades, but now are destined to either rust in the Arizona desert or continue their service in Third World countries.

Rural Westerners may be among the last to fly in airliners with propellers. Within just a few years, jets with 76 to 100 seats will be at the bottom level of service available to rural airports. For towns like Moab and Vernal, Utah, that means at least tens of millions of dollars are needed for airport upgrades. It’s the end of an era for airports with a windsock and a doublewide for a terminal.

Rural air service faces a vast transformation in the next few years, especially in the mountain West, with its longer flight distances and greater number of isolated communities. The U.S. Government Accountability Office says the nation’s air service in general is trending downward, but small airports will get hit the hardest, offering fewer flights and fewer airplanes. Already, in the last two years, 27 small airports have lost service altogether. Great Lakes, which serves Cheyenne, Denver, Phoenix and Los Angeles, has abandoned 17 cities since July, and been kicked out of several others. Constant air carrier switches have become the norm for small airports. 

The current crisis is due to a number of factors:

  • Continued consolidation of airlines has allowed carriers to cherry-pick the most profitable routes, leaving low-traffic communities in the lurch.
  • The majors have outsourced their short routes to “more obscure local airlines,” as the GAO puts it.
  • There’s a pilot shortage, meaning a shortage of pilots willing to start at a sub-McDonald’s pay.
  • Continuing volatility in fuel costs.
  • Continuing risk that Congress will terminate Essential Air Service program subsidies.
  • Planes with 50 seats or less are largely no longer made and are vanishing from U.S. service; many of these planes are ready for a major overhaul. This places smaller towns at a huge disadvantage.

Eventually, when the smoke clears, we will be riding in safer planes because they will be newer, and because the new regional jets have a longer range, more power to get through or fly over bad weather, and better de-icing systems. Cabins in the new planes are also taller, roomier and quieter, with bigger windows and more legroom.

Whether rural flying will be safer overall is a different question. Since deregulation, the industry has created a second tier of regional carriers that seem engaged in a “race to the bottom” to cut costs. If you’re a resident of a small town out West, chances are overwhelming that you rely on federally subsidized carriers, such as St. George, Utah-based Skywest or Cheyenne, Wyoming-based Great Lakes. Both are among the 10-lowest payers in the industry, according to Bloomberg News.

Current federal safety regulations require $100,000 worth of flight training to get an entry-level pilot job, which at Great Lakes pays a paltry $14,000 a year. The pilots’ union says that the pilot shortage is “self-inflicted” by the carriers, and the GAO backs them up – a report last year concluded many pilots have not given up flying; they are simply working abroad or in the military. Others have switched to higher-paying occupations.

Like most regional carriers, Skywest will work for anyone. Most of its planes are badged with the logo of United Express, Delta Connection, US Airways Express or Alaska Airlines. Skywest’s older planes have previously received FAA citations for airworthiness violations. The company says it wants to get out of “unprofitable 50-seat contracts” and into 76-seat jets. The GAO has concluded, as economics would suggest, that bigger planes “often lead to reduced frequency in many airport markets.”   

The future is uncertain for even the largest and longest-established mountain airports. In Aspen, you can board a Bombardier Q400, a modern turboprop, to get to Denver, or take a CRJ900 twin-engine jet to more distant hubs. Both are the kind of high-performance aircraft necessary for dealing with thin air, mountain weather and unforgiving topography, but both are facing ultimate retirement. The next generation of high-performance regional jets will have a bigger wingspan; that means Aspen’s venerable Sardy Field will need a wider runway and other improvements to the tune of well north of $200 million.

Will propellers vanish altogether? It’s hard to say. Several major manufacturers vow to continue making and marketing a new generation of quieter,  “high-speed” turbo-props that will be able to compete in smaller and niche markets. Meanwhile, we who live in rural outposts face a more difficult flying future.

Jon Kovash is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He writes in Moab, Utah.

High Country News Classifieds