Sunday, April 13, 2014

Wyoming airports endure spike in cancellations by local airline: Great Lakes cites pilot shortage due to federal regulations

Anna Erixon sat down at a laptop in her Lander home Wednesday afternoon and pulled up the Great Lakes Airlines website to book a flight.

She is a scientist for Merck, a major pharmaceutical company, who loves the Wyoming lifestyle. She usually works remotely, but once or twice a month she flies to Memphis or the company's New Jersey headquarters for meetings.

The last time Erixon flew Great Lakes, she was stranded in Denver for two days when a flight was canceled without notice. In the past, Great Lakes has called Friday to tell her the Sunday flight she booked was canceled.

Erixon is starting to fly out of Denver International Airport, a six-hour drive from her home. When she does use Riverton Regional Airport, she tries to fly out as many as two days in advance so she has plenty of time to endure the expected cancellations.

As she scrolled through her flight options – never take the last flight of the day, she warned – Erixon muttered an ultimatum.

“If this one fails, I’m done,” she said. “I’m not going to continue flying Great Lakes unless they give us some communication and commitment they can deliver what they’re promising.”

Four of Wyoming’s 10 community airports rely on Great Lakes for air service. Since October, taking off from or landing in Riverton, Sheridan, Worland or Cheyenne has had about the same odds as a coin flip. Great Lakes could not be reached for comment, but airport managers speculate new pilot regulations could be to blame. Whatever the reason, business leaders say reliable air service is crucial to local economies, and airport managers say fed-up passengers are abandoning local airports.

One month ago, 11 students from all over the country landed in Denver. They were one flight away from a semester-long outdoor course through the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander. The students were repeatedly told to head to the airport for a flight to Riverton only to have it canceled each time. Ultimately, some of the students drove to Lander, while the rest were re-routed to Worland and were picked up and driven to Lander by Outdoor Leadership staff members.

“All of our courses are field-based, so being a day late doesn’t work for our business model,” said Bruce Palmer, director of admissions and marketing at the school. “I think students look at getting here and getting home as part of the whole experience, and it will have a negative impact on our image. We would hate for their lasting memory to be that it took them five days to get home.”

The program is flying more than 1,200 students and instructors into Lander this summer. In past years, the outdoor school staff has accounted for another 100-plus flights, but most of them are choosing to fly out of Casper, Denver, Rock Springs or Jackson, Palmer said.

“You get snakebit a couple times, and you have to make a choice,” Palmer said. “Most people flying in and out of [Riverton Regional] are not particularly cost-sensitive. They are reliability-sensitive.”

Palmer said the school is continuing to use Riverton Regional for its students for now, but they are devising a plan B. Wyoming Catholic College, however, has ditched the airport altogether.

Late last year, college president Kevin Roberts issued a college-wide policy forbidding work travel with Riverton Regional.

“We have endured too many nights stranded out of town and too many days wasted by canceled flights,” Roberts wrote in a letter to Lander city officials. “I am sure that you know that once our and others’ decisions of going to Casper, Denver and Jackson become habits, it will be hard to ever re-attract us to using Riverton. That would be a terrible result of inaction, and one that has serious economic consequences on our region.”

The results of a recent study commissioned by the Wyoming Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division spelled out the potential economic impact of reduced air service at Wyoming airports.

An estimated 527,200 passengers boarded Wyoming flights in 2013. About 70 percent were visitors. Those visitors stayed an average of 4.5 days and spent about $580 per trip, excluding Jackson.

Of the businesses who responded to an online survey, 90 percent said they rely on air service on a regular basis.

The study estimated the total impact of Wyoming’s 10 airports resulted in 10,000 jobs and $413 million in payroll.

“It’s critical for all communities to maintain that air service. Wyoming is such a big state, and it’s a long way to drive from point A to point B,” said John Stopka, airport manager at Sheridan County Airport.

Nonetheless, that’s what’s happening in Sheridan and Worland. Since 2011, annual cancellations were below 4.5 percent at the Sheridan airport. In October, that number spiked to 20 percent and has climbed to 44 percent of all flights as of March.

Worland Municipal Airport has had flight cancellations jump from 3 percent in 2011 to 10 percent in 2013 and 51 percent through March of this year.

As a result, the number of passengers in Sheridan has dropped 34 percent from March 2013 to March 2014. Passenger leakage, or the number of passengers within Sheridan County Airport’s service area that choose to drive to another airport, climbed from 70 percent to 85 percent. Most of those passengers go to Billings or Denver, Stopka said.

Some are even flying out of the Casper/Natrona County International Airport, which reported a record 100,124 passengers last year, Stopka said.

With Great Lakes still cancelling nearly half of its flights to and from Sheridan County Airport, there is little Stopka can do to stem the tide.

“At this point, [passengers] won’t fly Great Lakes if the airplanes were gold-plated,” Stopka said. “They’re just done, and they’ve been canceled, and too many things went wrong with good, loyal customers.”

The airports those passengers leave behind are at risk of losing federal money. The federal government gives money to some of the nation’s smallest airports for infrastructure projects like runways. Drop below 10,000 passengers, though, and that $1 million subsidy plummets to $150,000.

“We’ve had air service here since the early 1930s, and we’ve never had this issue where we’ve been so close to falling under the 10,000 number,” Director of Aviation David Haring said.

The airport is on track to bring in only 6,500 passengers this year, he said.

Great Lakes officials did not return calls during a two-week period requesting an interview. Airport managers around the state say the airline is blaming two major changes in federal regulations for causing a dearth of pilots available to regional airlines.

In a March letter to the Riverton Regional Airport Board, Great Lakes CEO Chuck Howell said the increased flight training hours necessary for co-pilots are behind the recent spike in cancellations.

Howell’s letter said the airline hopes to remove 10 seats from its 19-seat Beech 1900s in order to use co-pilots with fewer than 1,500 hours.

Congress mandated new rules for on-duty and rest hours for pilots in response to a Colgan Air flight that crashed into a home in New York, killing 50 people. The FAA said fatigue was a contributing factor in the crash.

The new rules also increased the training hours required for copilots to fly regional planes from 250 hours to 1,500 hours.

That rule went into place August 2013.

“It’s like seeing a mouse come out of a hole, and instead of using a mousetrap, you use a shotgun and destroy the whole floor,” said Kevin Sweeney, a Wyoming Pilots Association board member.

Students used to receive their commercial license after 250 flight hours. They would start working at regional airlines like Great Lakes as co-pilots, and then build up to 1,500 hours and become a pilot. Eventually, they would accumulate enough hours to move to major carriers such as United or Delta, according to Sweeney.

Now, co-pilots need the same hours as pilots. Pilots mostly earn those hours flying crop dusters or as flight instructors, Sweeny said.

The average regional airline pays $24 an hour, half of what the major carriers pay. Since requirements are now the same across the board, the major carriers are hiring away the most qualified pilots, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

Airport managers in Cody, Gillette and Casper, all of which are served by SkyWest Airlines, said they haven’t had their operations affected by pilot shortages.

Mike Thompson, vice president of market development at SkyWest, said the airline hasn’t had staffing issues.

SkyWest, Wyoming’s only other airline, is also much larger than Great Lakes. It has 336 aircraft and 10,500 employees and partners with major carriers, like Delta and United, to provide service to small communities. Great Lakes operates independently.

Some passengers doubt a pilot shortage fully explains the cancellations.

Tracy Donovan, vice president of James L. Davis, the architectural firm building Lander’s new oncology unit, wonders if Great Lakes cuts flights with few passengers to save money.

“Rumors are the plane isn’t full enough, so they cancel it,” Donovan said.

She said she has had flights canceled as many as two or three days in advance. Other times, she has seen her flight simply disappear from the board at Denver International Airport.

“It’s aggravating and it’s unproductive,” she said.

That lack of communication creates the perception Great Lakes doesn’t care about them, some Fremont County residents said.

In his letter to the board, Howell argued against that perception.

"This is not just a Great Lakes problem," Howell wrote. "(This just) happens to be where the effects of the unintended consequences (of the new rules for pilots) will be first seen. The cry for help from the airline industry regarding the pilot shortage is not being heard."

Cancellations were up to 60 percent at Riverton Regional in March. One disgruntled passenger told the Star-Tribune she wouldn’t use Riverton Regional unless she could be 30 hours late. The decision came after having two flights canceled on the same day and having to drive to Denver that night to catch the next morning’s flight to her final destination.

Ultimately, Sarah Annarella, an account manager for the outdoor leadership school, said not having a reliable local airport only adds to the community’s remoteness.

Those customers are trying to do something about it. In Sheridan, Riverton, Worland and Cheyenne -- Wyoming’s four airports that exclusively use Great Lakes -- committees are forming to recruit a new airline to their struggling airports.

It's a slow process, which is why Haring said he and his staff members are now aggressively recruiting other airlines to fill the void, while still trying to maintain a relationship with Great Lakes.

“Great Lakes is based here, so by no means are we trying to kick Great Lakes out … but at the same time, our survival mode is trying to recruit another airline,” Haring said. “We are one of how many airports who would love another airline carrier, but the number of airlines expanding is small … communities have to go out and sell yourselves to the carriers. They aren’t going to mitigate their own risk anymore.”

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