Saturday, July 26, 2014

Funding for North Platte Regional Airport Lee Bird Field (KLBF) at risk

Lee Bird Field, along with other area airports, is facing difficulty in keeping wind beneath its wings.

Airport authorities have rejected two proposals from Great Lakes Airlines for 2014-15 service, along with airports in Scottsbluff and Kearney. The proposals were denied on grounds that Great Lakes lacked clarity, said Mike Sharkey, airport manager. The proposals have been turned over to the Department of Transportation for review.

Sharkey said Great Lakes has 30 days to respond to the rejection, and then North Platte Airport Authority will have an opportunity to comment. The process will be completed by Sept. 1, Sharkey said. The current agreement with Great Lakes doesn’t expire until Oct. 31.

Currently, Great Lakes is the only airline bidding to service North Platte.

One of their proposals undercut the necessary 10,000 enplanements — passenger boardings at Lee Bird Field — required by the Federal Aviation Administration for the airport to receive $1 million per year in federal funds for maintaining the airport. If an airport doesn’t make 10,000 enplanements, Sharkey said federal funding drops to $150,000 per year.

The trouble stems from an FAA law that went into effect in August 2013 that requires first officers to have training, that was formerly required only of captains, before they can set foot in the cockpit of a commercial airline. The FAA law requres that pilots applying for first officer in a commercial airline must have an Airline Transport Pilot rating, which includes 1,500 hours of specialized flying experience, ground school, similator training and a check-ride in an aircraft over 12,500 pounds — all funded by the applicant. Sharkey estimated the cost of all of it out of pocket is around $125,000.

Sharkey said he has discouraged his own grandson from pursuing a career in commercial airline piloting.

“The airline itself can’t even hire them to train them,” he said.

It used to be that pilots anticipating the ATP would gain flight time as first officers, and requirements for hire were 500 hours of flight, with some specialized flight. The new regulations were driven by the crash of Colgan Airlines flight 3407 in Buffalo, N.Y., which was attributed to pilot fatigue, Sharkey said. He said he sees the reason behind requiring more specialized hours for new hires, but thinks a better solution for pilots just starting out is dropping the ATP requirement and requiring 1,000 hours or so with stipulations on specific flight training.

The regulations don’t apply to pilots of smaller craft, though, so Great Lakes has started flying more nine-seater crafts than 19-seater planes to allow their pilots to stay in the air. The smaller planes and fewer flights translates to challenges at the airport to fulfill enplanement.

“This is through no fault of Great Lakes,” Sharkey said.

Commercial flights aren’t the only source of income for Lee Bird Field. The demand for private hangars and charter flights hasn’t decreased. In fact, Sharkey said most of the 50 hangars are full. But without the $1 million in federal funds, the airport won’t be able to complete maintenance at the level it currently is, particularly in the winter when ice and snow removal demands employee time, heavy machine use and fueling.

“They have painted small airlines and airports into the corner,” Sharkey said.

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