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SHERIDAN — Commercial air service in and out of Sheridan has taken a metaphorical nose dive since October, and this month’s numbers are promising to be the worst on record for canceled flights.
A task force of concerned citizens and business entities from Sheridan and Johnson counties is looking for ways to rectify the situation.
Great Lakes Airlines is the only commercial air service operating out of the Sheridan County Airport, and offers two to three daily trips to Denver from Sheridan. There, travelers are piped into larger air carriers if they plan to continue their journey.
Prior to last summer, the relationship between Great Lakes and the community was strained because of a high incidence of late flights. Today, more and more flights coming or going from Sheridan’s airport are being outright cancelled.
Airport Manager John Stopka said arrival and departure windows are tight. Planes must arrive within 15 minutes and depart within five minutes of their scheduled times. Otherwise, they’re considered late. This method provides a forum of accountability necessary to ensure passengers can make connecting flights. Over the past four years, Great Lakes Airlines has achieved percentages ranging from a low of 51.49 percent for on-time departures in 2010 to a high of 68.46 percent on-time arrivals in 2012. While the reliability of 2013 service has remained in the neighborhood of previous years, the total numbers of canceled flights increased five-fold in October and have continued to climb.
Specifically, the last quarter of 2013 saw one out of five flights in or out of Sheridan scheduled but never completed. As of the end of last week, Great Lakes had canceled roughly 43 percent of its flights since Jan. 1.
The canceling of air service routes between Sheridan and Denver coincide with the date new federal regulations went into effect that require more hours of experience for pilots. The new stipulation that commercial pilots have a minimum of 1,500 hours flying time hit small airlines hard around the nation. That’s a jump from 250 previously required for a basic commercial pilot certificate.
“Great Lakes used to be a stepping stone for new pilots,” Stopka explained, indicating the airline was traditionally viewed as a first stop for students out of school to build up experience and then move on to bigger airlines.
“Great Lakes has always been an airline where you, as a pilot, can come in with 400 or 500 hours, build your time up flying with them, and then when you get up to 1500 hours or so, you move on to another airline — one that may have better benefits, better salary, different equipment to fly,” Stopka said.
“Those pilots with 1500 hours aren’t out there. They’re not just wondering around the streets with that many hours.”
Stopka said Great Lakes had at least a year of advance notice of the regulation change, but was either unable or unwilling to take measures that would prevent today’s staffing shortages. Instead, the airline is racking up a backlog of cancelled flights quickly approaching the 50/50 mark.
Stopka said Great Lakes Airlines is considered to be an “EAS Airline,” referring to the federal funds given to airlines who provide rural service to designated communities under a program tagged Essential Air Service.
As it stands, Great Lakes receives about half its revenue from the federal government, making it one of the most subsidized airlines in operation. However, the federal EAS program is being whittled down, and with it, the priorities of the airline seem to have shifted with maintaining service to federally subsidized airports. Though Sheridan used to have an EAS designation, that is no longer the case, and Great Lakes operates in and out of Sheridan “at risk,” or unsubsidized by government funding. However, most Great Lakes Airlines destinations around the nation, which range from California to Michigan, still have EAS designations, and thus, hold a bigger priority for the airline.
Sheridan’s shoddy air service has led to a leakage rate of approximately 70 percent — people drive to Billings, Gillette or Casper to fly, and cite scrambled schedules as the main reason for leaving.
Officials from Great Lakes Airlines did not respond to multiple requests from The Sheridan Press to comment on its current operational situation. Stopka said he has also had contact with multiple customers of the airline who have also been faced with a lack of response from corporate entities.
“I get calls all the time from people telling me they’re done using that airline because they can’t miss any more flights.
“I find myself apologizing to these people, and it’s not my position to apologize on behalf of Great Lakes,” Stopka said. “It’s an empty apology.
“I hate to suggest that people fly out of Billings,” he continued, citing winter roads and economic loss to Sheridan as primary reasons he encourages people to from the Sheridan Airport if they have some wiggle room in their trip schedule.
Stopka said if the Sheridan airport drops below 10,000 monthly enplanements, the county is at risk of losing $1 million in government money for airport maintenance.
In addition to the loss of grant dollars, Sheridan sits vulnerable to a depressed market in the private sector.
“First of all, it impacts our overall substantiability. That being the case is that normal business travel is put in jeopardy by unreliable service,” said Forward Sheridan Executive Director Jay Stender.
“If we don’t have a carrier at all, that is a real obstacle related to business expansion and business relocation.”
Stender said at least 15 industry sectors between Sheridan and Johnson County are being adversely affected by sketchy air service, and community organizers are getting ready to take the next step to do what can be done at a local level to bring reliable air service to Sheridan.
Sheridan’s Critical Air Service Task Force exists as a formal alliance between Sheridan and Johnson Counties as a unified effort to promote effective, reliable air service as a point of functionality for business development. While the task force has been working to facilitate solutions to air accessibility since 2006, the group’s activity is looking to pick up substantially.
The task force has drafted a letter to Great Lakes Airlines soliciting advice about how, and if, the community can improve flight reliability. CASTF board members have also engaged two other airlines about the possibility of starting service to Sheridan to work alongside Great Lakes. In December, the task force expressed strong interest in recruiting Skywest by the end of thesecond quarter of this year if funding becomes available.
Without federal subsidies, the task of funding air service to Sheridan falls back onto community initiative.
CASTF Chair Bruce Garber said he plans to petition the community to pool together an incentive fund for an airline to provide more reliable service to Sheridan.
“Our biggest challenge now and what you’ll see come about is there will be a broad-based community effort to solicit funds for an account that can be set aside as a revenue guarantee for an airline,” Garber said. “It’s going to be something the community will start hearing more about in the next few weeks.”
Stender agreed communities that have seen success attracting consistent air service are most successful when businesses within non-EAS communities pitch in to match state grants that perform the same subsidy function federal money would. For example, in Jackson Hole, most businesses contribute toward a community-generated revenue guarantee for air service because they recognize the value it provides to the local economy.
“I am very confident that the revenue guarantee with the right combination of air carrier and community would work,” Garber said, indicating no solution would be perfect. “There are so many external factors the airline can’t control and the community can’t control part of that is it’s a tough business.”
Stender said the CASTF has also issued letters to Wyoming Governor Matt Mead encouraging an expansion of state funding for air service to rural communities. As far as procuring local funding, he said getting funds might take some time.
“It’s really hard to get significant contributions in Sheridan right now,” he said. “People have been asked too much.”
While large contributors will certainly be an incremental key to any potential community-funded air service program, Garber said individuals, retirees, business owners and every day citizens will be needed to join the cause as well.
“The good thing about this is they all are going to get to weigh in on that question,” Garber said. “Do you want to help?”