Pressure on Great Lakes increases over bad service

Dec 22, 2013 By Alejandra Silva, Staff Writer

As Great Lakes Airlines continues to struggle with a pilot shortage due to a federal regulation that has increased minimum experience requirements for pilots and co-pilots, the Riverton Regional Airport Board hopes to send a strong message to Great Lakes about the effects of the airline's troubles locally.

FAA rule change

The Federal Aviation Administration recently raised minimum pilot qualifications to 1,500 hours of flight time for a co-pilot, a number that formerly was just 250 hours. The change has created a pilot shortage.

Great Lakes counted on hiring less-experienced crew because pilots usually left the airline for higher-paying jobs when they gained more experience.

Now, with more experienced pilots the only option, Great Lakes must compete with bigger airlines for experienced crew members.

The rule change is affecting other regional carriers as well.

At the November airport board meeting, members decided to write a letter to Great Lakes chief executive officer Chuck Howell to state local concerns and to offer assistance.

In finalizing the communication this month, the board decided to include testimonials from Fremont County businesses being affected by the unreliable airline service.

NOLS concerns

The idea came up after Bruce Palmer came to the board with his concerns. Palmer, of Lander, is the marketing director at the National Outdoor Leadership School.

He said reliability issues at the airport have a heavy influence at NOLS. The school offers wilderness courses and relies on Riverton Regional Airport and Great Lakes to bring out-of-state students to NOLS.

"We're starting to have some very grave concerns as we're moving toward our summer season," Palmer said. "It's important to us that we have good, reliable service."

About 1,160 students come to the school each year, Palmer said, and most arrive at Riverton Regional Airport.

As many as 150 instructors use the airport annually as well, as do seven Lander-based staff members who make about 10 trips a year.

Palmer's guess is that NOLS was responsible for 15 to 20 percent of enplanements and deplanements at the airport last year. Due to the unreliable service, he said, students may arrive a few days after their courses begin.

"We can work with anybody to provide them with numbers and information that can help make the service better," Palmer said, adding that NOLS planners always know what dates their students are traveling.

"It's critically important to our business that we're able to get people in and out of here," Palmer told the board. "And if it's looking like we're not going to be able to do that, then we're going to have to find another way."

Other issues

Board chairman Jim Matson told Palmer that Great Lakes is trying to find solutions. The airline is relaying the problems to the FAA, which ordered the new flight time requirements for airline crew.

Aside from flight cancellations from the shortage of pilots or mechanical problems, Matson noted that passengers often are not informed that their flights are delayed or cancelled in a timely manner, causing more inconvenience.

"They're getting tired of it, and I don't blame them," Matson said of people who have contacted him and complained.

Palmer said NOLS is working on a backup plan if issues with the airline don't improve. Great Lakes has worked well with NOLS in the past, Palmer added. He said 250 to 300 students who travel for NOLS programs are age 17 or younger.

"Great Lakes has done a good job of making sure that if they have tight seating, they're getting the youngest people in the plane first," Palmer said.

Other business travel

Airport board member Dean Peranteaux said NOLS isn't the only business feeling the effects. He said a "fairly large" oil and gas company changed the dates of its meetings because officials couldn't be sure flights would arrive on time. Staff is flying to and from Casper or other airports instead.

He proposed testimonials be included with the letter the board will send to Great Lakes.

"I don't think we're as strapped as we feel," he said. "We really should be communicating weekly."

The board discussed trying to add a second carrier to serve the airport. Board member Bruce Kamminga said a second carrier might be attracted by the steady passenger numbers at Riverton Regional Airport.

And the idea of having fewer -- more reliable -- flights as opposed to more-frequent but less-reliable flights was another suggestion. That option would be hampered by the airline's need to sell as many seats as possible.

Alternatives to Great Lakes could include SkyWest Airlines, which serves several other airports in Wyoming, but that airline probably would request a subsidy, board member Cindy Olson said.

"Riverton airport can't even come close to affording (that) because the city owns the airport, not the county," she said. "We're the only airport in Wyoming that is owned by a city."

Olson doubted it would be worth paying the money to get a second airline.

The board agreed to contact more businesses and request details on how they are affected.

Getting aggressive

In attendance was Fremont County Commissioner Larry Allen, who suggested the board be more aggressive in communicating problems to the airline.

"If the board doesn't get real aggressive, I, for one, am going to have a hard time backing any future funding that the county's going to contribute," Allen told the board.

Allen's concern was associated with Conoco-Phillips, the planned Wind River Job Corps, and the proposed Moneta Divide oil project projected to operate 4,250 wells in Fremont and Natrona counties.

"How many people are going to live in Casper that could be living here?" Allen said. "And just because of the reliable air service."

Board member Bob Steen reminded attendees that in a recent report it showed that most users of the airport were not from Riverton.

"This airport is a Fremont County issue," Steen said. "This airport is vital to everybody in Fremont County."

Airport division manager Paul Griffin said the city is in contact with Nick Wangler, a 20-year aviation management executive and founder of Forecast Inc. The company builds relationships with airports and airlines and works with them to improve air service and passenger retention.

He will be asked to update the city council about efforts by other airports in the state and the possibility of a second airline in Riverton.

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