Airline casts doubt on service

Great Lakes CEO keeping his fingers crossed

The president of Great Lakes Airlines said he was keeping his fingers crossed to maintain current services at the Cortez Municipal Airport.

During a half-hour conference call Tuesday, Great Lakes Airline president Charles Howell told Cortez City Council members that the company shut down service to 14 cities and temporarily suspended service to two others starting in January. He blamed increased pilot training mandates from the Federal Aviation Administration, which has drastically reduced the number of available pilots across the entire industry.

“We ran out of pilots,” he told city leaders.

A year ago, Great Lakes Airlines had 300 pilots. Today, the company has 78.

The shortage of pilots led the company to suspend its mid-day flight service at the Cortez Municipal Airport. As of April 1, Great Lakes Airlines provides two round-trip flights per day from Cortez to Denver, and one round-trip on weekends.

City Manager Shane Hall said he understands the cause, but he challenged Howell why the company continued to book reservations only to subsequently cancel the flights.

“People are frustrated,” Hale said.

Howell replied the airline has started pulling flights from its booking system that were no longer in service, and he asked for patience during the transition.

“I’ve heard the same complaints from all of the 30-something cities we serve,” Howell said. “It’s been crazy chasing our tail.”

Council member Todd Keel asked Howell for his long-term forecast. Howell explained that 43 days of FAA training were required from a pilot’s date of hire before he or she was authorized to enter the cockpit. To date, the company has employed approximately two dozen new pilots this year, with plans to bring approximately three dozen more on board by next month.

“We’re hoping for mid- to late-summer for some sort of normalcy,” Howell said.

Council member Bob Archibeque inquired whether the company was able to meet local demand, after Howell indicated the company could be forced to reduce passenger capacity. Another new FAA guideline requires 10 fewer seats on one type of aircraft in the company’s fleet, reducing total passengers from 19 to nine.

“Historically, nine seats does not work for Cortez,” Howell said.

The company has requested an exemption from the nine-seat requirement, and Howell encouraged city leaders to join their lobbying efforts for legislative relief. Howell indicated that he doesn’t expect Congress to take up the matter until after mid-term elections this fall.

“We’ve been beating the drum loud and clear,” Howell said. “This is not just a Great Lakes issue. It’s also an issue for local communities.”

Council member Karen Sheeck asked if the new FAA rules were knee-jerk reactions to the Colgan Air 3407 crash that killed 49 people near Buffalo, New York. Howell said he envisioned that Congress assumed they knew best when they “moved the goalpost” requiring pilots to have 1,500 hours of flight time rather than 500 hours.

“Congress basically shut down the whole airline system,” Howell said.

Howell added the company could experience minor financial losses as they ramp up efforts to bring more pilots online, but he assured city leaders that customer fares were not expected to rise.

“This won’t affect ticket prices,” said Howell.

Compounding the problem, another new FAA guideline limits the amount of time pilots can serve in the cockpit. That directive has left Great Lakes Airlines with a 10 to 15 percent shortage of pilots needed to service the company’s route plan, Howell said.

Mayor Dan Porter wished the Cheyenne, Wyo.-based regional airline the best of luck.

“Our fortunes ride on their fortunes,” Porter said.

tbaker@cortezjournal.com