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Task force will tackle air service problem at airport

Mar 30, 2014 - By Alejandra Silva, Staff Writer

Working to combat mounting air service problems at Fremont County's only commercial airport, the Riverton Regional Airport Board has named a citizen task force to address the problem.

In February, Riverton mayor Ron Warpness invited residents to apply for spots on the task force. By March, Warpness became aware of state funding alternatives for airport issues, and an ad-hoc committee was formed March 12 to ensure Riverton regional got its "hat in the ring" for the funding, Warpness said. The official task force is an outgrowth of that effort.

"At that time there was a real feeling of urgency to move on that matter as quickly as we could," he said.

The ad-hoc committee consisted of Riverton city administrator Steven Weaver, Fremont County commissioner Stephanie Kessler, Lander City Councilman Cade Maestas, IDEA Inc. executive director Phil Christopherson of Riverton, and Missy White from the Lander Economic Development Association.

Broader representation

In order to have a broad representation of the county for the larger airport task force, Warpness also recommended the participation of airport division manager Paul Griffin, chairman of the airport board Dean Peranteaux, Pavillion Mayor Gary Hamlin, and city of or town council members Richard Gard of Riverton, David Bennett of Dubois and Ken Kundall of Shoshoni.

Warpness also hopes a Hudson council member and representative from the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes will participate.

The task force is intended "to make the airport more responsive to the needs of our traveling citizens" in the county, Warpness said.

The task force will work on a long-term plan to improve airline service at the city-owned airport, where flight cancelations have increased substantially this year as a new federal regulation on pilot eligibility takes effect.

Impact of rule change

The Federal Aviation Adminstration mandate requires co-pilots to have at least 1,500 hours of flight time before they can work for Great Lakes Airlines and other carriers. The previous standard was just 250 hours. Great Lakes relied on lower-wage, less-experienced co-pilots before the rule change, but they no longer can work.

High fuel prices and aging aircraft that require costly maintenance are other obstacles before the airline. Other small carriers operating in the U.S. are seeing the same effects.

Great Lakes has terminated service to all of its former destinations in North Dakota and has cut back drastically in Kansas as well, among other states.

Wyoming Aeronautics Com-mission consultant Nick Wangler addressed a March 21 meeting in Riverton.

Another airline?

He said options the task force might consider include inviting another airlines to serve Riverton Regional, but he said that would not be easy given the pressures being felt by all regional airlines.

Dennis Byrne, the aeronautics division administrator with the Wyoming Department of Transportation, said the acquired funding available from the through an airport grants program would need to be applied for as soon as possible because other applicants would be submitting their requests soon.

The aeronautics commission would approve the application.

He said Cody, Rock Springs, Sheridan and Jackson either have applied for funding or are expected to, but "we do have some monies in the account that really aren't allocated."

He estimated that $2 million could be available for the next biennium.

Byrne said the added state funding wouldn't necessarily be available each year, so the committee and community would have to take a long-term view to address the situation.

"It's not being understated here when (Wangler) states that the community has to get involved and stay involved long-term," Byrne said.

Any change would come with a cost, he reiterated, but if the ideas were well publicized and planned, and if committed investors were sought, the cost burden could be eased.

Moving forward

Commissioner Kessler cleared some confusion as the board discussed the task force, as to the preparedness of the group.

"We're ready to jump on this," she said. "We've already asked the questions. We're already thinking about the private public partnerships that we need."

White said IDEA Inc. and Lander LEADER have agreed to be co-sponsors of the grant application, work with the Wyoming Aeronautics Division, and seek private and public partnerships for additional funding.

She said task force members recognized the economic impact poor air service was having on the community, such as businesses leaving, choosing not to move to Fremont County, or recommending that their Fremont Count employees live in Casper instead.

"Unreliable air service essentially functions as no air service," she said. "Currently for March we're pushing 60 percent cancellations."

Randy Kimmel of Avis Rental Cars at the airport told the board the business lost $3,000 in revenue in February because of poor airline service.

"We have a huge opportunity for big business here," she said. "Fremont County is booming... (people) like to fly in here."

She said she has seen huge community support and said airport patrons would prefer to fly Riverton rather than drive to another airport.

Committee balance

Maestas, who also is the president of Lander LEADER, told the board to keep in mind that Dubois, Lander and Shoshoni also have airports they have to support. He also added that although the task force was formed to address the countywide-used airport, there is dominant representation from Riverton.

"That says, 'Here, come help us out,' not 'This is a joint effort,' Maestas said.

Others noted that Riverton Regional is the only commercial airport among those mentioned and is owned by the City of Riverton.

Airport board chairman Dean Peranteaux volunteered to step down from the task force in order to balance representation. The appointments of the committee would still need to be approved by the Riverton City Council because the airport board is appointed by the council.

Once finalized, the committee is expected to meet to discuss what direction to take to improve service. Byrne said information will need to be detailed and presented in the grant application before moving forward.