Give airport a break

May 23, 2014 By Steven R. Peck

The 10,000-passenger mandate will be hard to get this year, but it's not our fault

News on passenger airline boardings at Riverton Regional Airport for April was troubling, but it should not have been astonishing.

Anyone who has been watching the miseries of air service at Riverton Regional Airport this year must've known this was coming.

Passenger numbers are down sharply for the year --1,200 fewer through the first four months of 2014 than 2013. At this rate, meeting an important passenger benchmark --10,000 boardings annually --is going to be difficult to achieve.

That is no small consideration. It is a matter of pride, of course, but is also a matter of money. In the same story in which the eroded passenger numbers were reported, reporter Alejandra Silva noted that a new piece of heavy equipment for airport operations, a combination dump truck and snowplow, was purchased with federal money awarded to all commercial airports that achieve the 10,000-passenger boarding figure annually.

Riverton Regional Airport has had no trouble making it for more than a decade, and it would have no trouble making it this year if the service were reliable. It has been anything but.

The last time Riverton Regional Airport failed to reach the 10,000-passenger number came in 2001, when the airport was closed for the week following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Airline service was generally interrupted for months.

As soon as things got back to normal, air travel from Riverton Regional Airport bounced back nicely. But there was a time when it simply was not possible, due to factors entirely beyond local travelers' control.

When that happened, the Federal Aviation Administration recognized the difficulty and did not find the local airport responsible for this passenger drop-off. It went ahead and awarded the federal stipend that normally accompanies a 10,000-passenger year. In other words, Riverton Regional Airport and many other reports got a one-year waiver from the FAA and did not have to forfeit the precious federal appropriation that so many of the airports count on.

No one would call the semi-collapse of reliable service from Great Lakes Airlines a terrorist attack, but the effect on our only commercial airport has been the same. It simply has been impossible for passengers who would like to fly to and from Riverton to do so because so many flights have been canceled.

Great Lakes and other small airlines are suffering universally from the new rule imposed in recent months by the FAA that has reduced the availability of co-pilots the smaller airlines can't afford to hire.

Everyone from airport managers to city councils, from county commissions to state legislatures, from governors to members of Congress, finally is waking up to the overreaching effect of this FAA ruling. There is some hope that higher powers could alter the rule or rescind it, so that smaller carriers again could hire the required crew to staff scheduled flights.

Until that happens, the FAA --which is responsible for the difficulties faced by the airlines and airports --ought to take a lesson from 2001, and rescind the 10,000-passenger mandate for this year so that the federal financial reward could still be collected at the airports that depend on it.

Riverton Regional Airport already has been punished once by FAA action. It ought not be punished twice.

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