Pilot shortage cancels Cortez flights

FAA’s new training rules are blamed

A pilot shortage at Great Lakes Airlines is causing frequent flight cancellations from Cortez Municipal Airport to and from Denver International Airport.

Increased training requirements for co-pilots have left scheduled flights without the required staff, causing the cancellations.

Airport manager Russ Machen told the Cortez City Council that the situation is not the fault of Great Lakes Aviation, which usually offers three daily round-trip flights to Denver.

“Co-pilots now need three times the flight training, and that takes time,” Machen said. “Great Lakes is fast-tracking the training in order to resume normal scheduling.”

Since January, Great Lakes has had to cancel half its flights because of the regulation change. Business travelers have been inconvenienced, including Gunther Hardt, who runs Plaza Laundry in Cortez.

“I’ve missed business appointments. It has been spotty service. You take a chance booking a flight, then it is canceled,” he said.

Starting on April 1, Great Lakes will have a firm schedule of two round-trip flights per day to DIA, and one round-trip on weekends, through mid-summer, Machen said.

In part because of the Colgan Air 3407 crash that killed 49 people near Buffalo New York, new Federal Aviation Administration regulations implemented tougher training requirements.

Instead of 500 hours of flight training, first officers (co-pilots) now are required to have 1,500 hours, which can take up to six months to achieve.

Great Lakes went from 300 qualified pilots to 80, as a result of the new rules, according to airline officials, impacting the more than 40 communities it serves.

The change affected larger airlines as well, Machen said, and they are recruiting pilots from smaller airlines who already have the required hours to compensate, worsening the situation at rural airports.

“Great Lakes is addressing the problem by paying for the training in exchange for pilot contracts to fly for so many years,” Machen said.

To ease the schedule disruption, Great Lakes petitioned the FAA and received permission to reduce seating in some aircraft to nine seats, which only requires one pilot. This has helped to stretch pilot resources.

To free up pilots for higher-use routes, Great Lakes will suspend its Telluride service to DIA from April 8 to June 4.

The FAA also lengthened the rest hours of pilots before flying another schedule.

Cortez Municipal Airport is an Essential Air Service facility, meaning it receives a federal subsidy to insure rural communities have access to the national air transportation system.

According to the Denver Business Journal, Great Lakes is proposing that it be paid less to fly passengers between Cortez and DIA, requesting a $2.27 million per year, down from $2.24 million. The Wyoming based regional airline is the largest EAS provider in the United States, serving 41 communities.

“What can we do to make sure our airport continues to have airline service?” asked council member Karen Sheek.

Machen responded that the airport stays in the black financially due to the commercial service of Great Lakes. Without that revenue, the airport would lose money and need to be subsidized by the city to stay in operation.

“One potential you should be prepared to accept might be a larger aircraft that can take more passengers, 50, but only offers one round-trip per day,” he said. “That would mean less travel flexibility, but by Fall we expect the schedule to resume to three flights per day to Denver.”

An investigation of the 2009 Colgan crash by the National Transportation Safety Board identified pilot error as a major factor in the accident, prompting family lawsuits and Congressional action to tighten up flight training regulations.

jmimiaga@cortezjournal.com