Service problems and pilot shortages plague rural air service

 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.