Monday, February 9, 2015

Small Wyoming airports on funding chopping block

Three Wyoming airports are likely to see major funding cuts in 2015 as they fell below a federal threshold for passengers boarded in 2014.

Cheyenne Regional Airport, Sheridan County Airport and Riverton Regional Airport all boarded fewer than 10,000 passengers in 2014, which is supposed to cut federal funding from $1 million to $150,000 for the airports. The funding could be restored if Congress passes certain measures like a Sen. Enzi-sponsored bill that would look at 2012 flight numbers instead of 2014.

“It hurts,” said Tim Barth, Cheyenne Regional’s new director of aviation who is one week into his job. “It hurts bad.”

Barth said without the extra $850,000 in federal entitlements, the planned terminal enhancement will be delayed, phased or changed in scope; the airport will have to potentially roll together several years of funding to do routine maintenance on pavement; and more. And those are struggles Barth said he hopes the airport doesn’t have to face.

Cheyenne Regional had the most precipitous drop in passengers in the state in 2014, boarding or unloading 59 percent fewer people than in 2013. In boardings, the key federal metric, the airport dropped from nearly 11,000 to just over 4,000. The dramatic shortfall signals some major problems for small airports and air carriers.

Cheyenne Regional is serviced solely by Cheyenne-based Great Lakes Aviation, which has had a remarkably similar drop in overall passenger load during the same time period. The airline has dropped its passenger load by around 60 percent over the past year. January figures showed a 60.3 percent drop from January 2014, which itself was a 40 percent drop from the year prior.

The airline has pinned its deterioration on federal regulation changes that require entry-level co-pilots to have 1,500 hours of airtime compared to 250 hours previously. Great Lakes officials have said the rule cut their workforce and caused problems keeping to schedules as qualified pilots became hard to find. The airline has taken emergency actions like stripping out seats from planes to requalify some pilots, hooking wingtips with a flight school and more, but the passenger-bleeding continues.

At Cheyenne Regional, Barth said he hopes Congress will reevaluate the 1,500-hour rule, which a Great Lakes official said was passed after an emotionally charged session.

“A senator from New York implemented this legislation and it was really difficult to argue against when families of accident victims were circulating the halls of Congress,” said Douglas Voss, the president and co-founder of Cheyenne-based Great Lakes Airlines in 2013.

Barth said the plane reconfiguration has had a two-fold effect on the airport. First, the change takes time, thus taking planes out of the fleet while they are reconfigured. Second, they come back with fewer seats, making it even harder to maintain passenger numbers.

“Realistically we need to find a way to work with the home-base airline and in the region to work with ridership and provide reliable service,” Barth said.

He wants to find a way to connect with local travelers to extol the virtues of skipping Denver to fly directly out of Cheyenne. He also wants to expand the airport’s hub system out beyond Denver to include places like Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Kansas City, which could also open Cheyenne travelers to more airlines.

“We can’t rely on [Denver] as our ultimate hub,” Barth said. “If we continue forward with that model, it won’t be beneficial to our operations.”

Barth said that currently the airport’s search for a supplementary airline to complement Great Lakes is on hold while he evaluates how the airport operates in his new post. The search is likely to continue come summer as details like what Congress does or doesn’t act on fall into place. 

Original article can be found at: http://wyomingbusinessreport.com

1 comment:

Tom Ibach said...

Maybe if Great Lakes paid their pilots enough to have a place to live AND eat, they wouldn't have this problem...their karma has visited them