Great Lakes Airlines CEO: ‘We pledge that we will try to do a better job’

(Riverton, Wyo.) – Great Lakes Airlines CEO Chuck Howell met Friday morning with Riverton Airport Board for the first time in two years to discuss service to the local airport.

Howell addressed reliability issues that were brought to the table with his airline’s service, discussed things the company is doing to address those problems and named a couple of local efforts that could help improved service.

“You guys are being way too nice to us,” Howell told the board part-way through the meeting. “We have not been proud of our operations for the last two years.”

Howell took time to address a number of national changes that are affecting his company. He spoke of a coming FAA regulation that will require as of August new commercial pilots to have a combined total of 1,500 hours in the air before being hired. Right now he said they hire pilots with 500 to 800 hours of experience. “We think there’s going to be critical pilot shortage over the next 12 to 24 months,” he said. Waivers are expected to be made available, but the criteria for the waivers have not been announced yet.

He also spoke of a lack of new small commercial planes being built. Howell said Great Lakes is working with an aircraft manufacturer to someday build replacements for the airline’s Beech 1900s and Brasilias. “We’re trying to push the manufacture of another plane,” he said.

Howell also listed a number of communities that Great Lakes has stopped serving, including Albequerque, N.M., and a small community in Nevada. With these cutbacks, toward the start of June Great Lakes will have five spare planes to use as back-ups. This is up from a previous one or two at a time.

“I think you’ll see major improvements in reliability because we’re shrinking,” he said.

The board asked a number of questions about what could be done to improve service and improve local usage of the airport.

“Riverton is a community that’s very important to us,” Howell said.

Board member Dean Peranteaux said the many international students have had trouble with luggage being transfered between flights and getting stuck over night Denver. Howell said with regard to the luggage it helps when there are working agreements with other service providers, but no such agreement has been reached. He also said Great Lakes should do “a much better job of nurturing” the situation.

Board member Bob Steen asked Howell what his “wish list” would be to help improve services.  Howell said a hangar would be helpful, but that it “wouldn’t fix all of it.” He said a hangar would allow for planes to be stored overnight out of the weather so deicing wouldn’t need to occur in the winter and thereby decrease some delays. He said it would be about a 20 percent fix.

Howell said roughly 10 times a month, Great Lakes will have minor non-flight-related repairs needed to a plane before it can leave. However, he said there are no local mechanics willing to do the work and sign off on it. He said most of the time it means replacing a light bulb could result in major delays as the FAA requires all repairs, no matter how minor, to be signed off by a mechanic. He said if Great Lakes could find a mechanic that would be willing to be trained in the airline’s system it could help with about 50 percent of the delays. “Hard repairs,” those impacting flight and of major substance would still need to be repaired elsewhere.

Right now, he said about half of Great Lake’s destinations have mechanics on contract with the company. Steen felt like finding a local mechanic is something the airport board might be able to help with.

Peranteaux then addressed Great Lake’s perception in the community of unreliability, telling of how his wife was recently stranded in Denver after her initial flight with Great Lakes was cancelled. “People think if they can drive to Casper, drive to Denver, they’ll actually fly that day,” he said.

“We, you will always be feeling that,” Howell said. He said that being the lone carrier puts all of the pressure on them to be running consistently  He said large hubs like Casper have the benefit of multiple carriers where if one fails there is often a back-up option available.

“We pledge that we will try to do a better job,” he said.

The board also pushed for ideas on how to market the airport and the airlines. Great Lake’s Monica Taylor-Lee said some communities promote their airport via meeting with local companies and agencies. Some board member suggested Great Lakes advertise with local media when it makes positive changes like the basing of plane in Riverton starting in June.

Fremont County Commissioner Larry Allen said with a couple major local mineral developments coming to the county soon, the companies are looking at creating their bases in Casper for the air service. He wanted to know how to convince them that Great Lakes was reliable.  Howell told Allen to let him know next time the leaders of the projects arrive. “Let us know,” he said. “We’ll help role out the red carpet.”

Board Chairman Jim Matson said he was glad that Great Lakes was still serving Riverton. “We’re very fortunate,” he said. However, he too emphasized the reliability issues. “We hope that you will look at that and resolve it.” He said he didn’t care whether it was just a perception or reality as long as it gets fixed. “Anything you do to help that, we’d appreciate it,” he said.

“Your point’s well-taken,” Howell said.

Public Works Director Bill Urbigkit said he would continue to work with Great Lakes to make things better.