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As pilot shortage continues, Great Lakes quits ND service

Mar 19, 2014 - The Associated Press

The airline is the sole commercial flight provider at Riverton Regional Airport.

BISMARCK, N.D. -- Great Lakes Airlines will be leaving North Dakota by the end of the month after serving the state for more than two decades.

The Wyoming-based regional airline announced last week that it was suspending service to Dickinson and Williston. In January, it pulled out of Devils Lake and Jamestown.

Steve Kjergaard, the airport manager at Sloulin Field International Airport in Williston, said the biggest issue for the company in recent months was finding enough pilots to staff flights. When an airline can't staff a flight, it has to cancel it, and Kjergaard said the company has been having trouble regularly operating its flights.

Great Lakes has previously said it was pulling out of several regional airports because of problems retaining pilots. The company cited new federal rules that require co-pilots to log 1,500 flight hours before they can work for commercial airlines. They previously required 250 hours.

Industry analysts say the airline probably will try to consolidate its flights into a smaller route plan, concentrating on areas where it doesn't need federal subsidies, and where planes can be kept closer to Cheyenne and Denver.

The new Federal Aviation Administration rules that took effect last August, combined with airline industry staffing shortages caused by longtime pilots retiring, has made staffing for regional airlines very difficult, especially over the past six months, said Jim Higgins, an associate professor of aviation at the University of North Dakota.

"Right now, there's clearly not enough pilots who are willing to go and work at regional airlines," Higgins said in an interview Tuesday. "Most of the regional airlines out there, the smaller carriers out there, they're reporting that they're not able to hire as many pilots as they want."

Higgins said the shortages will leave many rural communities without reasonable access to airline services. Dickinson and Williston, he said, are an exception because of the draw the oil patch brings to the area.

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