Sunday, March 23, 2014

Editorial: The threat to rural air service

Small regional airports in rural areas have always battled market forces.

Seven airports in Nebraska are able to offer air service only through the generosity of Congress, which supplies more than $200 million a year in subsidies nationwide through the Essential Air Service program.

It’s no exaggeration to say that these airports suddenly find themselves in a crisis.

Great Lakes Airlines, which serves six of Nebraska's subsidized airports, has not been able to find enough pilots to keep its planes in the air.

The airline had to cancel all its flights out of McCook Ben Nelson Regional Airport during the first half of March, and it had to cut the number of flights out of North Platte from four a day to one.

Last week the airline announced that it was suspending all flights to and from McCook effective April 1 through April 27. The airline also has announced flight suspensions in other cities that it serves.

The primary cause of the pilot shortage is a new requirement enacted by Congress that pilots at small airlines have 1,500 hours of flight experience, up from the previous requirement of 500 hours. Congress set the higher standards after a plane crash in Buffalo, N.Y., killed all 49 people on board.

People at regional airports think the new standard is too high. “Congress created this mess and they need to do something about it,” Mike Sharkey, general manager of the North Platte airport, told the North Platte Telegraph. “It can be sorted out with safety in mind. They need to change it back to something more reasonable.”

It’s unclear, however, whether rolling back the required amount of flight experience is sufficient. As Business Week pointed out in an article earlier this month, “the life of an airline pilot lost its glamour a long time ago.”

Entry-level pay ranges from $17,000 to $22,000 a year, and the cost of flight training can top $100,000, the magazine said.

Great Lakes Airlines, which has the distinction of existing only because of its ability to attract more than $50 million a year in federal dollars, has resorted in some cases to taking seats out of its planes, which allows them to fly with a co-pilot who does not meet the 1,500-hour requirement.

Erstwhile fiscal conservatives like Rep. Adrian Smith have been able to set aside their generalized disdain for federal subsidies in the past when it came to approving additional funding for the Essential Air Service program.

But they face opposition from Tea Party types and longtime fiscal hawks like Sens. John McCain and Tom Coburn.

It’s one thing for federal programs to live on year after year. But it will be difficult in the current climate in Washington to win approval for expansion. The market forces are gathering strength. Change is in the air.

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