Thursday, March 20, 2014

OPINION: Emptying skies

Airport boardings are dropping as Great Lakes continues to cut flights

Western Nebraska Regional Airport Manager Darwin Skelton had bad news for board members this week. Boardings at the airport have fallen by more than half as Great Lakes Airlines struggles to maintain a schedule.

The airport boarded 734 travelers in January and February, but last year it boarded 796 in January alone. In February the airport saw 38 flights, compared with 32 in January. Normally it averages at least 100 per month.

The airline recently ended service to McCook and booming Williston, N.D., among other airports. In press reports, the airline blames a “severe industry-wide pilot shortage” on a federal requirement that pilots at small airlines must have 1,500 hours of experience, instead of the previous 500 hours.

But other reports over the past few months suggest another problem: Small airlines simply don’t pay enough.

Major airlines pay significantly higher salaries than regional carriers and frequently hire pilots away from regionals. Qualified pilots are available, but they’re not willing to work for low entry-level wages, the federal Government Accountability Office said in a report. Eleven out of 12 regional airlines failed to meet their hiring targets for entry-level pilots last year, the report said. However, no major airlines were experiencing problems finding pilots.

GAO found that the size of the pilot pool has remained steady since 2000. There are currently 66,000 pilots working for U.S. airlines, but there are 109,465 active pilots with a first-class medical certificate who are licensed to fly airline passengers. Pilots leaving the military only have to have 750 hours of relevant experience, while other pilots can obtain restricted licenses with 1,000 hours if they are university trained.

Education and flight training from a four-year aviation degree program can cost well in excess of $100,000, the report said. Pilot schools that GAO interviewed reported fewer students entering their programs resulting from concerns over the high costs of education and low entry-level pay at regional airlines.

The experience requirement has been in place for almost a year. Regional airlines, which account for about half of all domestic airline flights, told GAO it has forced them to limit. But the average starting salary at regional airlines for first officers, also called co-pilots, is $22,400 a year, according to the Air Line Pilots Association. The association told the Associated Press that Great Lakes pays newly hired first officers $16,500 a year.

Overall, average professional pilot salaries fell 9.5 percent from 2000 to 2012, while the number of pilots employed went up 12 percent, GAO said. Both trends are inconsistent with a shortage. And the unemployment rate for professional pilots is only 2.7 percent.

Meanwhile, the cost of an airline ticket rose for the fourth straight year. The average domestic round-trip ticket, including tax, reached $363.42 last year, up more than $7 from the prior year, according to an Associated Press analysis of travel data collected on millions of flights throughout the country. The 2 percent increase outpaced inflation, which stood at 1.5 percent. Airfares have risen nearly 12 percent since their low in the depths of the recession in 2009. At the same time, airlines have eliminated unprofitable routes, packed more passengers into planes and merged with one another, providing travelers with fewer options.

So blaming the government for the problem leaves out a lot of the story. The federal Essential Air Service program offers generous subsidies for regional airlines to serve remote communities, where the choice for travelers is to risk cancellations or schedule changes by the airlines or drive for hours to reach an airline hub.

Airport officials here are looking at other options for local service but don’t have many immediate options. If Great Lakes was to end service here, Skelton said, it could be months before another carrier takes over.

That’s not good news for western Nebraska. Without air service, a city that’s more than 40 miles from the nearest Interstate and hours from the Denver Airport will seem very isolated to anyone looking to take a job or start a business here.