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Up in the air

Jun 3, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

Would Fremont County dare try a subsidy to improve airline service?

The man who runs Great Lakes Airlines did his best a few days ago to reassure Fremont County leaders that his airline could improve on its often sub-standard performance in serving our county's only commercial airport.

All in all, that was a better thing for the chief executive to have done than simply throw his hands in the air and say "we are doing the best we can." But talk is cheap, and Great Lakes has not given satisfactory service this year. The enplanement numbers at Riverton Regional Airport tell that tale statistically. Significantly fewer air travelers have boarded planes at the airport this year than last.

Other communities have faced their own frustrations with Great Lakes, but some have done more than complain about it. They have, in effect, opted to pay for better service. Cody was one of the first to try it. Most recently, Gillette has shelled out subsidy money to entice airlines with better equipment, better schedules, and different destinations to serve the airport there.

Just last week it was announced that a subsidy of more than $1 million would be paid to SkyWest Airlines to ensure its continued service to Gillette, from where it flies to both Billings, Mont., and Salt Lake City.

Could, or would, Fremont County ever consider such a move?

Some sobering statistics cited by Great Lakes chief executive Chuck Howell included his conclusion that a larger airplane, such as the regional jets that serve Casper's airport, could never be profitable under the Great Lakes business model. Howell said that even if a 50-seat regional jet were to be filled to capacity for every flight from Riverton to Denver, it would still lose money unless fares were raised significantly. These are the cruel realities of serving a sparsely populated state with regular commercial airline service.

It is Fremont County's good fortune to have commercial service at all. Our interior location places us far enough away from Casper, Billings, Salt Lake City, Jackson and Denver that if our county's 40,000 residents are to be provided with their service, then a regional airline will have to come to us. That is what Great Lakes has been willing to do for many years now, but never to its satisfaction or ours.

In his recent visit to Fremont County, Howell was addressed by county commissioner Larry Allen, who told Howell the airline needed to "work your guts out" to prove that it could serve the airport reliably so that Fremont County, in turn, could convince potential employers to locate here. Defining "work your guts out" will be an important operative detail. Something must be done better, and soon.

No county in Wyoming can match Campbell County, where Gillette is the county seat and dominant municipality, in terms of money to burn. To Campbell County government, and perhaps the City of Gillette itself, $1 million is not viewed as a staggering figure. Instead, it is considered a reasonable cost of doing business to ensure good air service in a booming community.

Gillette is about the size of the Riverton and Lander "metropolitan" areas combined, but Campbell County itself has about the same number of people that Fremont County does. We are not so rich as Campbell County, but we are a mineral and energy county with a high assessed valuation compared to almost any other county in the state. In some years we have boarded about 15,000 passengers at Riverton Regional. The market is here.

These factors do at least give us the potential buying power for an airline subsidy if the point came that local leaders felt a change had to be made. One idea could be to offer Great Lakes a subsidy in order to ensure that all flights serving Riverton Regional were on the larger, 30-passenger Brasilia turboprop. Local travelers say they much prefer that plane when compared to the 19-passenger Beechcraft aircraft that has covered most departures from Riverton Regional over the past couple of years. (Howell did say that the frequency of flights on the Brasilia would increase this summer.)

There is a general perception that our county government would never agree to a subsidy payment to an airline. Nor has Great Lakes asked for it. But if talk is cheap, then money talks. As the county moves forward in anticipation of more jobs tied to the coming Wind River Job Corps Center, expansion of uranium mining, and increased oil and gas development, it might be wise to at least leave open the possibility of using some of our county's wealth to improve the level of convenience and reliability for commercial air travel.

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