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Air service crisis

Jun 30, 2014 - By Steven R. Peck

Other places are trying things we need to consider

The ongoing, statewide crisis of deteriorating airline service is sparking cooperative efforts that Fremont County ought to watch carefully, with an eye toward emulation.

Last week, both Sheridan County and neighboring Johnson County agreed to cooperate on a subsidy program to assist Great Lakes Airlines as it copes with the new federal regulation covering pilot experience which has decimated its flight crew.

Johnson County, whose county seat is Buffalo, doesn't even have a commercial airport, yet its leaders see the importance of maintaining reliable service at the Sheridan County Airport across the border. That airport is reporting problems ominously similar to those being experienced at Riverton Regional Airport, namely widespread cancellation of flights, "leakage" of more and more local air travelers to Billings, Mont., and very real threat of failing to meet a 10,000-passenger annual threshold which qualifies the airport for more than $1 million in federal assistance. Accompanying all of these conditions is a general downgrading of the community's profile air service continues to crumble.

Sound familiar? In new stories reported statewide this week, the "Sheridan County Airport" could have been swapped out for "Riverton Regional Airport," the gist would have been identical.

In Sweetwater County, air service has been compromised to the point that local government leaders there, who had been providing money to subsidize two flights per day to Salt Lake City, have decided to quit subsidizing one of those flights and concentrate instead on shoring up the remaining one, so travelers from Green River and Rock Springs can at least be confident there will be one scheduled flight per day that departs and arrives on time.

There is a kicker to the Sweetwater County tale. Actual subsidy money being paid will increase even as the number of subsidize flights decreases.

Paying more, getting less. Welcome - again - to the new world of commercial air service in most of Wyoming.

The news from Riverton Regional Airport this month has been a little better than the other months of 2014, meaning that only an alarming number of flights has been canceled rather than a sickening number. But even that small improvement has come with considerable cost. There no longer is an early-morning flight from Riverton regional to Denver. A flight that once departed at 6 a.m. now departs after 8 a.m. For travelers needing to meet connecting flights in Denver, especially to points east, this is a considerable inconvenience.

Also, after having been promised service exclusively on the 30-passenger aircraft flown by Great Lakes, Riverton Regional now instead is being served by the Beechcraft 1900, which has a capacity of 19 passengers. Compounding that problem, the airline has pressed its "reconfigured" Beechcraft 1900s into service in Riverton. These are the planes which have had 10 seats removed, leaving only nine seats available for passengers. That trick does get around the federal regulation requiring two experienced crewman rather than one experienced in one less experienced, which has improved white reliability somewhat.

But as Riverton Regional also strives to achieve the 10,000-passenger benchmark to qualify for the big federal grant, it becomes apparent that even if every seat on the nine passenger plane were filled every day -- and that is laughable because the airline almost never flies all three scheduled flights per day -- there's still would not be enough boardings to reach 10,000.

The prophecy becomes self-fulfilling. We won't get the federal grant because we don't have enough travelers to justify it. And we won't have enough passengers to justify the federal grant because the airline will not provide enough seats.

Other counties in predicaments like ours have decided that some local money must be spent to shore up the service that does exist or serve as incentive to acquire new air service. Sheridan (and Buffalo), Rock Springs, Gillette and Cody all either are doing it or have done it.

No one much likes this notion, which invariably is described by some as "corporate welfare." We prefer a different term -- community welfare. Make no mistake that it will be to the Fremont County community's benefit if air service at Riverton Regional Airport can be made reliable again. It will be to the community's great detriment if it cannot.

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Riverton Regional Airport