Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Great Lakes Airlines' inconsistencies are urging South Dakota travelers to their cars, larger airports

PIERRE, South Dakota — Air travelers to and from South Dakota's small towns are growing weary of inconsistent flights, and many say they are giving up on regional airports all together.

Cancellation rates at the Pierre airport have soared, affecting local residents trying to get to weddings and even doctors flying in to see patients in rural areas, officials say. Ticket sales have since fallen.

Federal Aviation Administration rules that took effect last August require co-pilots to log 1,500 flight hours before they can work for commercial airlines. They previously required 250 hours.

Great Lakes Airlines was hit hard by the changes. The airline serves Pierre, Watertown and Huron in South Dakota with flights to Minneapolis and Denver.

Cancellation rates for departures from and arrivals to Pierre were lower than 3.5 percent in July and leapt immediately in August 2013 when the rules changed. The cancelations continued to climb to well over 20 percent this winter.

Mike Isaacs, the airport manager for Pierre Regional Airport, said it was doing well last year but business has dropped because of cancellations. He said he along with airport staff and city officials have received a lot of complaints. Doctors have missed surgeries, some people have missed weddings, he said.

"There's some pretty serious impact because of this. Folks, after they get stung once or twice, they're going to drive," Isaacs said. "And I don't blame them for that."

Radiologists who travel from Minneapolis to Watertown, South Dakota, on a weekly basis used to fly on Great Lakes, said Jill Fuller, chief executive officer of Prairie Lakes Health Care System in Watertown, which contracts with the doctors.

Because of cancellations and delays, they missed appointments with patients who drove up to 100 miles to see them. Now those doctors take a car service from 3:30 a.m. to reach their Watertown patients.

"That's the reality of delivering care in a rural area," Fuller said. She works with other out-of-state physicians at Prairie Lakes who have had to alter their routes, because of flight inconsistencies.

Watertown Mayor Steve Thorson said Great Lakes is subsidized by the federal government through the Essential Air Service program to serve the city.

"They're getting the subsidy, but they just don't land here," Thorson said. He said the city doesn't need a lot of flights every day. "We would be happy with two (each day) if they could just get them here on time," he said.

The capital city, which is smaller than Watertown, opened a new terminal in 2012 for the Pierre Regional Airport with hopes of running three airlines through it. But Great Lakes remains the only commercial carrier in the city.

In January and February last year, the monthly passenger count averaged around 1,000. This year, it's around 700.

Isaacs said they used to serve about 50 percent of the travelers in a 50-mile radius around the airport, and the remaining travelers always drove to the larger airports in Sioux Falls or Rapid City. He said they've lost another 10 percent of their market.

Jim Ellenbecker, owner of Budget Blinds in Pierre, recently opted to drive to Rapid City for a flight rather than risk a cancellation out of Pierre. The drive is around three hours.

"I don't prefer to drive somewhere to catch a flight," Ellenbecker said, but he added: "The number of flights going out seems to be inconsistent."

Before August 2013, the airline offered eight daily flights out of Pierre. The count dropped to four, until a fifth trip was revived.

Great Lakes recently pulled out of North Dakota airports. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines fly to oil patch airports in that state.

The airline did not return repeated requests for comment. But in a statement, Great Lakes CEO Charles Howell, said, "the company feels it is in the best interest of our customers, communities and employees to suspend service from these stations until we are able to rebuild our staff of pilots in order to provide reliable service."

In another effort to cope with the regulations, Great Lakes is removing 10 seats from some of its 19-seat planes.

Should Great Lakes try to pull out of Pierre, Isaacs said it wouldn't be able to leave before the airport found a replacement. He said the airport is always looking for more airlines to fly out of Pierre.

If the city needed it, it could qualify for Essential Air Service dollars to encourage an airline to stay. Pierre has qualified for the program in the past. But overall, Isaacs said, there's not much that regional airports can do to help the airlines' struggle.

Pierre Mayor Laurie Gill said she has been doing what she can, talking with airline representatives and with U.S. lawmakers. She said commercial air service in rural America has faced challenges for the past few decades.

"There are a lot of people working on it," Gill said. "Please continue to have faith in the Pierre Regional Airport."