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Great Lakes has a plan

Great Lakes has a plan

Mar 24, 2014 - By Alejandra Silva, Staff Writer

Struggling under new FAA regulations, airline cuts seats from some planes; Riverton to have 30-seater exclusively

The top man at Great Lakes Airlines says his company is in a "perfect storm" that is causing big problems for Riverton Regional Airport and other fields served by the Cheyenne-based regional carrier -- but he vows the situation is about to improve.

Airline chief executive officer Chuck Howell's letter to regional airports was reviewed at a public meeting Friday at Riverton City Hall hosted by the Riverton Regional Airport Board.

A new FAA regulation put in place last year means fewer co-pilots now meet the Federal Aviation Administration's 1,500-hour flight-time requirement, Howell noted.

The earlier rule allowed "right seat" personnel to have just 250 hours. The airline's cockpit crew numbers reportedly have shrunk by about two-thirds in the past six months, meaning many flights don't have the required two cockpit personnel -- pilot and co-pilot -- available to cover the full schedule.

A reported 60 percent of the airline's flights at Riverton Regional were cancelled in February, and Howell said the same situation exists at the other airports Great Lakes serves.

Listeners at Friday's meeting heard airport board members and other officials speak openly of trying to enlist a different airline for Riverton Regional, but guest presenters from the Wyoming Department of Transportation's Aeronautics Division said that would not be a simple process because other regional carriers are facing similar difficulties.

Beech 1900 configuration

Howell said older airplanes and higher fuel costs have combined with the new FAA regulations to steer the airline to cancel flights, eliminate routes, and halt services to airports.

One solution could come through changes to airplanes. Great Lakes has been given approval to remove 10 seats from its Beechcraft 1900 planes, the mainstay of its fleet. Originally a 19-seat aircraft, the Beech now will be considered a nine-seater, which will permit it to fly commercial routes using flight crews under Federal Aviation Regulations Part 135 rules.

In essence, the change means Great Lakes can now fly a nine-seat configuration with first officers (co-pilots) who do not meet the 1,500-hour flight time requirement. Planes with 10 seats or fewer don't need the more-experienced crew.

The move will allow Great Lakes to hire pilots with a few hundred hours so they can sit in the right seat and fly as a first officer in the Beech 1900s.

"This was a long-anticipated, critical step in being able to rebuilding our pilot staffing," Howell said.

Fares on the reconfigured planes could rise because costs of operating the aircraft will be higher on a per-seat basis, but some savings on fuel could occur because the nine-seat plane will be lighter.

Anticipating approval, Howell said Great Lakes on Feb. 3 hired its first class of pilots that met the acceptable hiring standards. Pilots are now completing all training and others are in "various stages of ground school, simulator and flight training processes, Howell said.

The result should be more-reliable service, and a benefit locally will be larger aircraft. Howell said the reconfigured, nine-seat Beechcraft would not be used at Riverton Regional, which boards too many passengers to make the smaller plane viable.

Instead, Great Lakes plans to operate the 30 passenger Embraer 120 Brasilia in Riverton exclusively, beginning in April.

Riverton Regional Airport Division manager Paul Griffin said the majority of the airports Great Lakes services enplane less than 10,000 passengers a year, and those airports, such as Worland, would get the nine-seater.

Riverton Regional has a new schedule that shows three flights, Monday through Friday with departure times at 7:15 a.m., 12:02 p.m., and 3:57 p.m. Saturday has two flights scheduled, and Sundays have three.

The early-morning flight has been particularly problematical when it has been cancelled because travelers count on early arrival in Denver to make eastbound connections.

"We will be adding more (nine-seat) aircraft to the schedule as quickly as crew qualification and testing has been completed," Howell said, adding that pilot interest in working for Great Lakes has grown rapidly because of these changes.

The benefits to service are expected to be apparent by April, Howell said.

"With our April 2014 schedules we have been forced to further reduce our capacity to begin to synchronize it to pilot staffing that have finally begun to rebuild," he said.

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