Much better nowOct 2, 2016 By Steven R. Peck
Air service problems have been addressed; now it's time to rebuild the market
The summer air travel period in Fremont County was poor, statistically speaking, compared to those of years earlier.
But the pieces are in place for the situation to be reversed.
That has happened because of diligence, patience, hard work and creativity from a non-government volunteer task force which succeeded earlier this year in securing air service to a major hub that was much better than the air service which had all but collapsed over the previous three years.
Then why were the summer air travel numbers still so low? Because, like a persistent illness, the effects linger even after treatment begins. It takes a while for the medicine to kick in.
There were two serious, negative developments tied to the crippling decline in reliable air service suffered by Great Lakes Airlines following federal regulations which required twice the number of senior pilots in the cockpit as Great Lakes had become accustomed to using. The airline couldn't afford to double its number of highly experienced pilots, so many scheduled flights had to be canceled. Each flight that was canceled meant less revenue for Great Lakes, making it even more difficult to hire and retain the requisite number of experienced pilots.
The effect was obvious. Commercial service from Riverton Regional Airport dwindled to the point of being so unreliable that passenger numbers evaporated to the tune of three-quarters or more.
The less-obvious effect at the time is the more serious one now, namely, the longer-term undermining of community confidence in the airport and local air service. People simply didn't think about it anymore. For all intents and purposes, commercial air service simply ceased to exist in Fremont County. Many people felt that way. More importantly, many people still do.
Of equal urgency to restoring good air service is the rebuilding of confidence and awareness in local air service among Fremont County travelers.
Monitoring of the new, twice-daily jet airplane service to Denver International Airport reveals everything local air boosters could have wanted on the provider side. Since Denver Air Connection flights began on July 1 there has been not a single cancellation. The average performance for on-time departure and arrival has been two minutes ahead of schedule. Fares are lower on average than those that Great Lakes offered - much lower if you plan a couple of weeks ahead. The plane is bigger, more comfortable, it has a restroom and a flight attendant, and it is nearly twice as fast as it zips from Riverton Regional Airport to Denver.
Right now, the awareness remedy is trailing the actual service remedy. But the signs are encouraging. A member of our newspaper staff was at the airport Wednesday morning, and 12 people boarded the Denver Air Connection flight that had arrived from Sheridan to pick them up on the way to Denver. Inside the plane there were 18 Sheridan passengers. That flight was completely full when it took off for Denver.
Just three weeks earlier, the same traveler reported boarding a Denver Air flight, also on a Wednesday morning, when there were just three local passengers. The improvement 21 days later might not be evidence of a bona fide trend, but it sure is an encouraging anecdote.
Now Great Lakes looks to be improving as well. It still flies to Riverton Regional, and it is announcing this month that it will be bringing the larger, 30-seat Brasilia aircraft back into service for Fremont County. Recently Great Lakes has entered into a cooperative arrangement with a larger airline that appears to be easing the pilot shortage problem as well.
Two airlines at Riverton Regional? Four, perhaps five daily flights to Denver? 120 seats reliably available each day when three months ago there were just 18 unreliably available seats? Somebody out there must think Fremont County air service has good potential for improvement.
If you had lost faith in flying from Riverton Regional -- which was entirely understandable -- please take time to reconnect with local air service. It's much, much better than it was the last time many of you checked. The ingredients are in the pan. It is up to us to turn on the oven.