There’s a sense that if you travel in and out of Sheridan via business or leisure — via the Sheridan County Airport – that Great Lakes Aviation is on its final approach here. That with what little service there is, it is undependable. The Sheridan Press in its Jan. 28 edition published a story about how almost half of the flights into SHR are delayed or are flat-out canceled.
What glamour there once was in commercial air travel disappeared more than a generation ago. Regional carriers, like Great Lakes which is a Cheyenne-based company, cite new FAA rules regarding pilot rest, more minimum in-time flight hours and fewer pilots as causal reasons for the delays and leaving people stranded, their customers’ plans scrambled. (When local travel agents put you on flights out of Billings or Casper instead of the local carrier, that’s a sure sign of trouble.)
Pilot salaries at the 14 U.S. regional carriers average $22,400 annually, some as little at $15,000. That’s about minimum wage. When pilots come out of aviation schools, they’re saddled with more than $100,000 in training/school debt. That’s one reason that while more than 57,000 new student-pilot certificates were issues in 2012, it’s more than 31 percent fewer than 20 years ago. All this from The Wall Street Journal and FAA data.
Great Lakes told the WSJ it has but 100 pilots, down from 300 a year ago. It is also removing seats from its planes in order to meet FAA rules so that pilots of planes with fewer seats need just 250 hours of experience. Not a comfort when the guy up front driving the bus has minimum flying time and makes minimum wage.
Further, it’s a generational issue. More and more senior pilots are turning 65 and face mandatory retirement from the FAA; the major carriers are poaching captains from regional carriers to replace these senior captains and pilots. For years, airlines had hiring freezes on pilots to stabilize costs in a volatile industry. With hindsight ever sharp, these decisions on hiring and investing in the future are coming home to roost.
Sheridan officials have taken notice. On Feb. 10, the Sheridan County Board of Commissioners approved an application to the state for funding to help subsidize air service here. The application is on behalf of the Critical Air Service Team, a nonprofit organized to tackle the turbulent task of reliable service in a small community. CAST will request $1.5 million from the Wyoming Air Service Enhancement Account. In addition Sheridan and Johnson counties have pledged matching funds of $700,000, which will include government subsidies as well as help from private and business donations.
While driving to Billings, Gillette, Casper or even Denver may seem like a mere inconvenience to area residents, losing air service in Sheridan could be a detriment to the local economy.
Tourists seeking vacation stops and destinations would lose one mode of transportation to get here. This means fewer hotels rooms booked, restaurant meals served and local merchandise sold.
In addition, businesses seeking to relocate or start are less likely to consider a community that makes it difficult for clients to come and go quickly and reliably.
CAST continues to seek funding from the state and vested local interests to help maintain a steady commercial air service in Sheridan. It is time we ante up.