By Tracee Davis

The Sheridan Press

SHERIDAN — Sheridan County’s commissioners are continuing to take action to address problems associated with sketchy air service at the county airports in Sheridan and Buffalo.

Last week, the group sent a letter to Wyoming’s congressional representatives outlining the ongoing problems created by new federal regulations.

Small airlines around the nation are facing a critical shortage of pilots after a change in regulation that went into effect last year dramatically increased the required number of flight hours a pilot must have in order to operate a small commercial plane. Previously, stipulations were that a pilot log 250 hours of flying time before being able to fly a small charter flight like the ones that go in and out of Sheridan. Now, pilots on those same flights must have a total of 1,500 flight time.

“There is no evidence this requirement is based on anything other than an arbitrary judgement,” the letter signed by Commission Chair Terry Cram reads. “In today’s aviation environment, this is just not doable, nor is it necessary.”

Like most small airports around the country that are served by a comparatively small charter service, Sheridan County has struggled with unreliable, inconsistent air service for several years. The problem was compounded when the new hour requirements for pilots went into effect.

A second problem cited in the commissioners’ letter centers around federal funding.

­ In order to be eligible for an annual subsidy of $1 million, the Sheridan County Airport must show that 10,000 or more people flew out of the airport on a commercial flight. As consumer confidence in the punctuality of the airline has dwindled, the threshold of 10,000 passengers annually is being threatened.

The commissioners assert that historically, the airport has enplaned more than 30,000 people per year, and that the potential for significant demand for air service remains, though patrons won’t buy tickets if they don’t feel secure their flights will be on time.

“We also ask that a waiver and/or legislation be created to hold harmless airports like ours that are dealing with the pilot shortage Congress created,” Cram wrote. “At some point, the issues will be resolved and better service will return, making the need for the airport to be current regarding its capacity, safety and security. Without funding assistance, we will not be able to maintain it in an acceptable condition.”

The issue of accessibility to Sheridan via air is one that is directly tied to the economy of Sheridan and Johnson counties.

“Congress created this situation and we ask that you work to resolve it in a way that helps restore safe and efficient air service to Sheridan and Johnson counties,” Cram said in the letter.

In addition to petitioning policymakers, the commissioners have committed to split a tab of $700,000 with Johnson County to subsidize air service to the region. The Critical Air Service Task Force has also petitioned the Wyoming State Aeronautics Commission for $1.5 million for the same purpose and the group continues to look for another provider.