Mar 21, 2014 By Steven R. Peck

Friday's meeting on local air service was depressing -- but not hopeless

Air service is a community issue.

If a single thought ought to be carried away from Friday morning's public forum hosted by the Riverton Regional Airport Board, that's the one.

Air service at the Riverton Regional Airport is in trouble, and we can't assume anyone else is going to do much to help.

Air service is a community issue.

Spectators heard representatives of the Wyoming Aeronautics Division make the point, then illustrate it from numerous angles -- many of them depressing.

Great Lakes Airlines hasn't performed well, but other regional carriers also are struggling. Huge mergers at the top of the industry mean that just four airline giants control the overwhelming majority of flights -- and what they want is for passengers in Riverton and Lander to drive to Casper, Salt Lake City or Denver to fly.

By no means can our problem be solved by simply making a phone call and inviting another airline to step in. The regionals are being squeezed from both ends -- by the soon-to-be-infamous FAR117, the federal regulation which has decimated smaller airlines by outlawing less-experienced co-pilots, and from above by brutal pressure from the billion-dollar carriers that will be perfectly happy if the small-timers fail and we all have to drive to a bigger hub to fly.

There haven't been many air service success stories in Wyoming outside Casper and Jackson, but the few that qualify have a couple of things in common. First, the communities involved decided not to stand by and hope things improve. Second, they opened up the checkbook -- the public checkbook -- to make their airports more appealing to smaller carriers who are looking for lower-risk markets.

Rock Springs and Gillette engaged in active discussion with other carriers that can fly to other destinations. Cody and Laramie pressured the state aeronautics division to help in talking with larger carriers about better fares.

In Rock Springs, airport funding beyond the basic operational level comes from that city, from neighboring Green River, and from Sweetwater County. Campbell County steps forward with funding enhancements that make carriers take notice of Gillette.

Air service is a community issue.

Another speaker refined the point further by urging Riverton (where the airport is), Lander (where many air travelers come from) and Fremont County (which has the money), not to quibble over who owns and operates the airport and instead make sure that it is operated to the best advantage of all Fremont County air travelers -- 60 percent of whom now are flying from somewhere other than the local airport.

The tone of the information presented Friday was clear and not all that encouraging: Riverton air service is threatened, and there is nothing special about us. We are one of many smaller airports nationwide facing the same hurdles.

Air service is a business, and it affects the entire economic climate of each airport's service area. Fuel costs, aircraft costs, personnel costs and facilities costs are skyrocketing, and new regulations harm the little carriers and little airports while giving significant advantage to the big boys.

Airlines will serve communities where it makes the most financial sense. In the first months of 2014, the only airline we've got has decided it doesn't make sense to keep serving a lot of airports that look very similar to ours on paper.

Hays. Fort Dodge. Thief River Falls. Devils Lake. Jamestown. Ironwood. Mason City. Williston. Great Bend. McCook. Dickinson.

Great Lakes has said goodbye to all of them since Jan. 1. Air service is a community issue. Only a community solution can restore it to strength in Fremont County. It will take resolve, creativity, leadership and money. Starting now.

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