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Airline chief says changes will improve performance

May 26, 2013 - By Alejandra Silva, Staff Writer

Great Lakes Airlines chief executive officer Chuck Howell briefed local leaders on efforts to eliminate reliability issues at Riverton Regional Airport during a meeting Friday with local airport board members.

"We've not been proud of our operation over the last couple years, specifically in Riverton," Howell said. "We've had issues -- shortage of airplanes, shifting of the routes, weather issues -- and so we're trying to rectify that."

Fremont County Commissioner Larry Allen said it will be especially important to have reliable service at the airport in the future, when the Wind River Job Corps Center is expected to open in Riverton and additional employment is anticipated due to activity at area uranium sites.

He pointed out that Natrona County is encouraging mineral companies to move to Casper, in part based on more reliable flights from Casper-Natrona County International Airport.

"We're expecting over a thousand new jobs," Allen said. "We need some assurance that you're going (to) work your guts out to provide a dependable, on-time service so we can go to these major companies and say we want the jobs."

Job growth in the county is anticipated from the federal Job Corps Center, new uranium production, and the Moneta Divide natural gas development, among other factors.

No more sharing

Howell spoke about plans to boost enplanement numbers by making some changes at the Riverton airport.

By June 6, he said, the early morning 30-passenger Embraer-120 Brasilia flight will no longer be shared with passengers from Worland Municipal Airport. Instead, the plane will be filled with passengers departing from Riverton, and the plane and crew will spend the night in Riverton.

"You will now have an originating overnight airplane out of here," Howell said.

On June 28, he continued, the flight that departs at noon will also be upgraded to the 30-passenger aircraft as opposed to the 19-passenger Beechcraft 1900 that had been serving that departure.

Smaller operation

Changes like these stem from what Howell called the "shrinking" that Great Lakes is undergoing as well as some usual steps taken for the summer to serve travelers like those attending the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander.

Howell cited three causes for the need to downsize at Great Lakes. First, he said, aircraft fuel costs have gone up, and the airline's fleet is becoming outdated.

In addition, Howell said it has become difficult to find pilots who have met the required number of flight hours. Howell said a new regulation goes into effect in August requiring pilots to have 1,500 hours of air time before they can be hired by a regional airliner.

"The last thing we want to do is overextend any potential growth only to find out that we don't have pilots to crew the airplanes," Howell said.

Benefits of shrinking

Great Lakes currently operates 28 of the 19-passenger Beech 1900s and six 30-passenger Embraer-120 Brasilias in 45 airports in 13 states according to Howell, who said the company has eliminated some services in other states and taken over routes in other cities.

Howell said the changes will leave the company with five spare airplanes.

"I think you will see some great improvement and reliability because we're shrinking," he said.

In the past, Howell said, only two spares were available.

Howell said there are no plans to manufacture more of either aircraft, but he said Great Lakes would like to see more in production. Howell said no planes Great Lakes operates have been made in the last 10 years, and parts for the company's current fleet are more scarce. The lack of parts complicates or delays repairs for major mechanical problems the aircraft may have, Howell said.

He added that other commuter planes also are not likely to be manufactured in the near future. Even if a 50-seater was available, however, Howell said the revenue from a full flight still wouldn't cover fuel costs under the current fare structure. Because of those high fuel costs, Howell said, dozens of those aircraft are not being used.

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