SHERIDAN — Following a meeting Wednesday with representatives of Great Lakes Airlines, the chairman of the Sheridan-Johnson Critical Air Service Group said he was hopeful that the reliability of commercial air service to and from Sheridan might improve in coming months.
Because of budget cuts related to the recent sequester, Great Lakes is likely to lose federal subsidies for providing service to markets in Nevada and Montana. Critical Air Service Group Chairman Bruce Garber said Great Lakes CEO Chuck Howell indicated in Wednesday’s meeting that those cuts might free up the airline to provide more reliable service in Sheridan.
Contrary to a common misconception, Great Lakes receives no government funds for servicing the Sheridan market and is under no obligation to fly in or out of the region.
Still, Garber said the airline seems committed to restoring faith in its operation among members of the Sheridan community.
“They said they were very committed to the Sheridan market,” he said.
Whether the company will actually be able to capture a larger portion of Sheridan and Johnson County travelers remains to be seen.
The recently founded nonprofit Critical Air Service Group was born out of frustration with statistics indicating that, while residents of Sheridan and Johnson counties do in fact book enough tickets to support a commercial air service operation, a large majority of local travelers opt to fly out of other regional airports instead.
According to statistics compiled by an independent analyst at Forecast, Inc., 76 percent of locally booked tickets went to other airports — mainly Billings — in 2012.
Garber said that while the Critical Air Service Group has discussed several potential means of improving traffic levels out of Sheridan, nothing has been finalized as of yet.
“The bottom line is we have the traffic, but we’re not carrying it out of Sheridan,” he said. “Our mission is going to be to do anything that promotes commercial air service into this community, providing (it is) safe and reliable.”
Currently, the group is comprised of representatives of about 15 local industries who say commercial air service is an important component of maintaining quality of life and economic growth in Sheridan and Johnson counties.
Certain members of the group have expressed interest in luring a second airline to Sheridan, but it’s unknown whether that might eventually be possible. Communities including Casper and Gillette have attracted airlines to their cities in recent years by providing a sort of insurance policy of either government or private funds in case the company doesn’t do a certain level of business.
Garber said that while the Critical Air Service Group may eventually explore similar options, any financial guarantee — which could cost between $1 million and $2 million — would likely come from the private sector and depend on the willingness of local businesses to participate.
“We don’t want to be at the mercy of government, because things are tight,” he said.