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Save our air service

Feb 11, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

Let's leave no stone unturned

Anyone hoping that 2014 would bring better air service at our county's only commercial airport is having a bad new year so far.

Great Lakes Airlines, the county's sole commercial carrier, is in trouble. It might take a nudge from the government to keep it on its feet. That's only fair, because the government, federal variety, is one very big reason the Great Lakes is in such a jam.

No one could claim, or is claiming, that Great Lakes is entirely a harmless victim of circumstance. It has had an embattled history from the moment it began serving Riverton Regional Airport -- a good bit of it the airline's own doing. But the newest trouble comes in the form of a federal mandate requiring cockpit crew and commercial airlines to have far more experience than was required previously. The results have been disastrous for Great Lakes. Never a rich airline, it had to rely on staffing its planes with a smattering of more-experienced, middle-aged pilots and an army of youngsters -- 20-something flyers with good training, good skills and the willingness to earn less money for a chance to work as commercial pilots.

But the new federal aviation administration requirements unveiled last year have upset that balance, and Great Lakes has seen its cockpit personnel numbers gutted. Six months ago, the airline had more than 300 pilots and co-pilots. Today, cockpit crew numbers only in the 90s. Even if every one of them was at work simultaneously in a Great Lakes plane, it wouldn't be enough to cover all of the scheduled flights. Great Lakes now can't even pretend to be doing the job expected of it.

At Riverton regional in December, nearly one-third of the scheduled Great Lakes flights didn't take place at all. Only one in 10 departed on time. As the new year begins, those numbers are trending even worse. The effect snowballs. When there are not enough pilots to service all the routes across the multi-state Great Lakes service area, more flights are canceled. That means more disgruntled travelers.

In the first weeks of 2014, news reports are dotted with announcements that Great Lakes is ending airline service to communities and airports similar to Fremont County and Riverton Regional. There is a huge threat now of the same thing here.

And let everyone understand: Losing commercial airline service in Fremont County would be an enormous blow to the local economy, local morale, and standing in the region. To go from a community that has commercial air service to one that doesn't crosses a clear line in regional importance and prestige. A community with air service stands a notch above one that doesn't. There is no doubt.

Government at every level needs to consider what can be done to help maintain this precious component of community and economic well-being in our county and others.

In Washington, our state's congressional delegation ought to join others in Congress in requiring that the FAA regulation on cockpit experience be reopened, re-examined, and revised to better reflect the market realities of airports served by Great Lakes and other regional carriers. The ruling is having the effect of regulating small airlines and small airports out of business.

At the state level, wealthy Wyoming ought to examine ways that financial assistance could be increased to commercial airports and/or small airlines to permit more equipment to be available to fly, for job training, and perhaps even wage incentives so that the airline has a chance to compete for experienced pilots with the likes of United and Southwest Airlines.

Several commercial airports in Wyoming comparable to Riverton regional have received passenger subsidy funding from municipal or county governments. It has happened in Cody, Gillette and Rock Springs. Any discussion on saving commercial air service in Fremont County would be incomplete without a realistic consideration of funding assistance from Fremont County government. Such funding could be used to relocate a certified aviation mechanic to live in Fremont County and be available to work on Great Lakes aircraft in both Riverton and Worland without waiting a full day or more for a mechanic to arrive from Denver.

The same goes at the municipal level. Riverton, perhaps through its affiliation with the Fremont County Association of Governments, should continue to press vigorously for more assistance from the county and other municipalities either to help Great Lakes survive here or to make another airline interested in serving our airport.

There is a viable commercial air service market in Fremont County, but perhaps not without some reinforcement at the government level at this point. Longtime observers of the Fremont County commercial air picture say the situation has become dire. Commercial air service must not be lost. We should leave virtually no option untapped to preserve it.

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Riverton Regional Airport