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Airline inquiry

May 5, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

If we woo a new carrier, there will be questions and answers for both sides

The new task force assigned the duty of getting to the bottom of crippling air service problems at our county's only commercial airport has made its first decision: get a different airline.

That idea is nothing new. It has been in the heads of many a Fremont County air traveler through the years, but the task force's formal request to the Wyoming Department of Transportation's aeronautics division takes it to a different plain (and perhaps plane).

Our county won't be begging. This has been a consistent, and attractive Wyoming airline market for more than 60 years. The fundamentals have not changed all that much, and it would be unwise for any suitable airline to ignore Fremont county's request.

When the suitors do come calling, the task force will need to have some questions ready. Among them:

- How is the airline dealing with the pilot shortage based on new federal regulations that Great Lakes Airlines blames for most of its troubles at Riverton Regional and elsewhere?

Great Lakes claims it is not alone in struggling to maintain quality service in the face of the new rules. Any new carrier must do a better job of dealing with them than Great Lakes is.

- Will the airline guarantee an early morning flight out of Riverton Regional, as well as a late flight back each day? The repeated cancellation of the early flight by Great Lakes has led to a self-fulfilling prophecy of decreasing passenger numbers at the airport. Without the early flight, a lot of the attractiveness of local air travel disappears.

- Will the new airline offer enough seats to cover peak travel times? The Fremont County air market has generated passenger counts in five figures year after year, but only because there have been enough flights and seats. We have to have more than a couple of flights per day on a plane with more than a dozen seats. Anything else is self-defeating.

- Is Denver still to be our preferred destination? We are not likely to have a choice of more than one "hub" airport, and some in the past have argued Salt Lake City could be more economical and just as passenger-friendly.

- Is there any possibility that two airlines would want to serve Riverton Regional simultaneously? The editorial writer well remembers the days of high competition at the airport 30 years ago, when three carriers competed for local passengers by offering as many as nine flights and 300 seats per day to Denver.

That was absurd and untenable, of course, but is it conceivable that two airlines could split a seven-day flight schedule and give Riverton Regional a better travel menu, perhaps to more than one destination?

- While discussing the subject of questions, the local airport task force had better be prepared to answer an important one from the airlines. Put simply, that question is "What is it worth to you for us to start flying there?"

In its investigations, the task force is likely to learn quickly that airlines being asked to initiate new service expect incentives from the potential new market. They are asking for them, and they are getting them.

Local governments, and perhaps the local business community as well, must consider the prospect of offering such incentives -- meaning financial -- to make serving our airport more attractive in what clearly is a seller's market for airlines.

Finding a different airline probably won't be easy. It is possible that the task force will learn that Great Lakes Airlines will continue to be our best option. Only a thorough process involving questions and answers from all sides can ensure our best outcome.

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Riverton Regional Airport