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Slim schedule in October; city will press for lease payments

Sep 29, 2017 By Katie Roenigk, Staff Writer

Great Lakes Airlines is suspending service to Riverton Regional Airport effective Nov. 1.

Airline chief executive officer Doug Voss said the airline may return someday.

"Riverton has always been a strong market for us, and we'll be reconsidering it," he said Friday. "But timing-wise, right now we're just not willing to take the losses through the winter."

He said the regular seasonal downturn in travel to the area prompted the airline to pull out now. However, the overarching reason for the withdrawal has to do with regulatory issues related to pilot supply.

The regulations on flights of 10 or more passengers prompted Great Lakes to move to a nine-seat configuration in the 19-passenger turboprop airplanes that serve Riverton Regional Airport.

"We continue to press all sorts of solutions relative to the pilot supply, but as we look through the winter here it doesn't make economic sense to continue to try to use a nine-seat-configured Beech 1900," Voss said.

Great Lakes did fly some 19-seat planes to and from Riverton during the summer, but in recent weeks he said the company reverted to the nine-seat configuration.

"The strength of the traffic and the load factor on the airplanes has been sufficient over the last few months," he said, "but as we enter winter operations it gets more expensive, and the revenue reduction associated with seasonality is just causing us to make the move now to preserve the pilot group for other operations."

In its heyday, Great Lakes often flew a 30-passenger aircraft, the Brasilia-120, to and from Riverton Regional, which boarded 10,000 passengers annually for many years.

Regulatory relief

Rule changes in past years have increased the number of hours pilots must log before they are eligible to fly alone.

One strategy to address the pilot shortage that resulted involves future retirees. Voss said he would like to hire some of the thousands of individuals slated to retire in the coming years in order to grow his group of pilots.

That will only be possible if regulations are modified to allow those pilots to fly smaller aircraft, though.

Voss expects to see some "regulatory relief" next year.

"But until such time as we actually see results, we're going to be holding off," he said. "I'm not making any announcement on a return or anything like that, (but) we'll be considering it."

Grateful

Fremont Air Service Task Force chair Missy White said her group would welcome Great Lakes back to the community if it decided to return.

"Absolutely," she said. "The door is open - the runway is open."

Despite recent issues with reliability related to the pilot regulations, Riverton public works director Kyle Butterfield said the community has appreciated Great Lakes's service through the years.

"A lot of those years were good years, and they deserve to be recognized for what they did," he said. "We definitely need to give them credit for what they did for our community. ... We wish them well as a company, and we're sad to see them go."

Through October, he said, Great Lakes will cut its flights to Riverton in half, from two flights per day to one. Butterfield also noted that the city will work with Great Lakes to ensure the company is up-to-date on its lease payments before it leaves.

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2017-10-20

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