Sunday, February 22, 2015

Three Wyoming airports facing steep federal cuts

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Rob Shearer looks at his phone while waiting to meet a passenger Friday at Cheyenne Regional Airport. A steady decline in passenger traffic in Cheyenne, Sheridan and Riverton has caused cuts in federal funding, making it difficult for Cheyenne to replace its aging terminal.

An ongoing, nationwide pilot shortage continues to cripple Great Lakes Aviation’s ability to serve several Wyoming airports, and the effects are starting to hit home, according to airport managers.

“We just had a discussion with Great Lakes, and they are losing money on this flight,” said John Stopka, manager of Sheridan County Airport. “It doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t work for us … in the next month or so they will have to make a business decision.”

Losing flights means losing passengers, and losing passengers means losing critical federal money.

Sheridan is one of three Wyoming airports that boarded fewer than 10,000 passengers last year, triggering a cut from $1 million in federal money to $150,000 for capital projects unless Congress offers temporary reprieve. Funds for Riverton and Cheyenne regional airports are also on the chopping block.

Great Lakes is the only airline using the Sheridan airport, which means problems will only increase if Great Lakes pulls out and no other airline steps in. Great Lakes CEO Chuck Howell did not return multiple calls requesting an interview.

A nine-passenger Great Lakes plane currently serves Sheridan with one flight per day, six days a week, Stopka said. There is no way the airport will reach the 10,000 passenger mark this year.

“I’ve been here 39 years, and we’ve never been in this position,” Stopka said.

The Sheridan airport could be forced to delay safety projects like replacing lighting and a 20-year-old electric fence meant to keep out wildlife, according to Christy Yaffa, airport planning and programming manager for the state’s aeronautics division.

Wyoming lawmakers are considering coming to the rescue for some projects, like repairs to a safety area along the runway, Yaffa said, which would help. Sen. Mike Enzi introduced a bill last month seeking to use 2012 passenger boarding numbers to calculate federal money through 2017. A similar bill is being considered in the House.

Using 2012 numbers means looking at how airports fared before federal changes that airlines and industry experts say caused a nationwide pilot shortage and subsequent passenger downturn. It would also delay the pending drop in federal funding.

Following a 2009 plane crash in Buffalo, New York, that killed 50 people, Congress increased the required training hours to fly from 250 hours to 1,500 hours. The new rules went into place August 2013. The additional hours add time and expenses for pilots in training, say industry experts.

With fewer pilots available, smaller regional airlines are cutting back service to low-traffic airports like those in Wyoming.

Cheyenne Regional Airport boarded 5,380 passengers in 2014, a 56.4 percent drop from 2013, according to an unofficial count.

“It is going to hurt immensely,” said Tim Barth, airport manager, regarding the looming federal cuts.

A reduction in federal money could mean delaying or scaling back plans to replace an old terminal building next year. The airport has secured $14 million and needs another $4 million to provide the facility the community deserves, Barth said.

Other projects that could be affected in the near future include replacing snow removal equipment and fixing pavement.

“You can’t have a pothole out there,” Barth said. “We may have to repair sections as needed, replace what’s worst, but when you do it piecemeal, it drives the cost up.”

Barth said he expected pending legislation to help Great Lakes turn its operations around in the coming year, but he also wanted to see more permanent help from Congress.

Sheri Taylor, the air service development manager for the state’s aeronautics division, said her department is trying to combine Wyoming’s voice with other rural states suffering from reduced or eliminated service in order to get Congress talking about the issue. The state is also trying to recruit airlines to bring in supplemental service.

Wyoming does have a program that guarantees a minimum revenue to airlines as a way to take some of the risk out of moving into a low population market, Taylor said. Several airlines have expressed interest, but have said they don’t have the pilots to come in any time soon.

The recent rule changes have compounded an already existing shortage, explained aviation consultant Ken Jenkins. The U.S. airline industry laid off a lot of pilots following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and many of them went overseas. Since then, demand has returned, but the supply of pilots has lagged behind, he explained.

“You need the manpower to fly the routes. If you don’t have it, the airlines look at small stations and say, ‘Well, alright, this is the lowest … service,’ and they’re going to drop it.” Jenkins said. “It’s only going to get worse before it gets better.”

Great Lakes endured a 61 percent drop in passengers from 2013 to 2014, and operating revenue tumbled 51.6 percent to $44.4 million.

The airline also terminated service to 14 airports last year, according to its financial statements.

“Nationwide, that is a really sad story that keeps getting repeated,” Yaffa said. “Airlines are so risk adverse that opening a new market to them is just too risky … once it’s gone, it’s really hard to bring it back.” 

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