New FAA rule results in pilot shortages for Great Lakes Airlines, other carriers; More local flights cancelled

Four members of the Riverton Regional Airport Board met Friday morning in Riverton. (Ernie Over photo)

(Riverton, Wyo.) – The Riverton Regional Airport Board looked for a silver lining today from the woes now plaguing the nation’s regional feeder airlines because of a new Federal Aviation Administration rule. They couldn’t find one.

Great Lakes Airlines, and other regional carriers, are struggling to cope with a new FAA requirement that has increased the qualification requirements for first officers who fly for U.S. passenger and cargo airlines. Known as co-pilots, the new rules requires these first officers to have a minimum of 1,500 flight hours. Previously, co-pilots were only required to have a commercial pilot certificate, which required 250 flight hours.

As an unintended consequence of the new rule, pilots with 1,500 hours or more have become hot commodities in the airline industry, and are fleeing the regional feeder airlines for the majors. Great Lakes is suffering as they are running out of pilots. In a memo to Great Lakes Airlines employees, CEO Chuck Howell said Thursday that “we have seen other carriers aggressively recruiting our qualified pilots, and attrition has been more than double the normal rate.” He also wrote, “To further aggravate the situation, there are limited pilots looking for work that meet the new qualifications, therefore filling new hire classes has been challenging.”

Riverton Airport Operations Manager Paul Griffin said phone calls to Howell have not been returned.

In Riverton last month a total of 13 departures were cancelled, along with nine arrivals. For passengers caught unawares, trying to get another flight is difficult and results in missed connections and loud complaints.

“I get a phone calls every time someone is bumped off,” said Bob Steen, airport board member. “We’re getting hammered every time someone gets bumped.”

Dean Peranteax said the pilot shortage is seriously impacting the city’s efforts to promote Riverton Regional Airport. Peranteax said a flight he was on from Phoenix several weeks ago arrived in Denver on time, and the airport flight boards at DIA indicated the evening Great Lakes flight to Riverton was on time. It turned out that the flight had been cancelled two days earlier, but no one bothered to tell the passengers until they arrived at the boarding area. Peranteax said he was forced to rent a car and spend $250 to get home after a six hour drive because there was no assurance he could fly back into town. “And many people cannot afford to do that. The frustration is not with the cancellation, but the communication to the passengers,” he said. “The airline knew in advance that the flight would be cancelled, but that wasn’t communicated so we could make other plans.” Peranteaux said he could understand the frustration passengers are feeling.

The Riverton Airport Board member even acknowledged that he has driven to Casper to catch flights due to the uncertainty of flying out of Riverton.

“It will take us three to five years to get passengers like that to fly out of Riverton again,” Griffin said. “It’s just not a local problem, it’s a statewide and national problem and other airports in the state are losing passengers too.”

While the discussion was about negatives, Griffin said boardings at Riverton Regional were up by 352 passengers last month compared with the same month a year ago. A total of 11,620 passengers have flown from Riverton this year, compared to 11,268 one year ago. “We’re up three percent,” he said.

The board agreed to send a letter to Howell to urge better communication between the airline and its passengers over the cancellation issue.