Western Nebraska Airports Look for Change

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June 29, 2016 - 6:45am

For many years, taking a flight from western Nebraska has been a bit of a gamble. Most of Nebraska’s smaller airports have recently changed airlines with the hope that might improve.

A handful of passengers sit in the small, one room airport in McCook, waiting for their flight to Denver. Mary Egle of Phoenix visits family in McCook once or twice a year. She much prefers flying to driving, “cause it's a two-day trip for us, if we drive,” Egle said. “And now it's just an hour into Denver and an hour and 40 minutes from Denver to Phoenix. So it's much easier.”

But this is only her second time flying directly to McCook. Last time she visited, she flew into North Platte, 70 miles to the north.

“It was less costly to fly all the way to North Platte and then drive back down,” Egle said.

Cost and reliability are two main complaints about service from Nebraska’s smaller western airports. McCook Mayor Mike Gonzales said many area residents frequently drive the four hours to Denver’s airport instead of risking a local flight, because “you just didn't know if you were going to get to fly.”

In the last several years flights through Great Lakes Airlines were often cancelled due to staffing or mechanical issues, Gonzales said.

Click here to see a larger, interactive version of this chart.

“It really got to the point where it dropped off so drastic that our flying public just lost confidence in them. That's really tough on a community when you need that air service,” Gonzales said.

Several other airports had the same complaints about the airline, which served all of western Nebraska until last year. Calls to Great Lakes for this story were not returned.

When the government deregulated airlines nearly 40 years ago, there was concern airlines would abandon service at smaller regional airports in favor of bigger markets. So the government established the Essential Air Service program to subsidize trips between small airports and larger hubs. That program is what keeps daily scheduled air service available in 175 communities (excluding Hawaii) nationwide, connecting towns like McCook, North Platte, Alliance and Chadron to Denver. But service at most of those airports took a dive a few years ago.

North Platte Airport Manager Mike Sharkey said a lot of that is because of one factor:

“There is a pilot shortage and it was created by Congress.”

In 2013 the Federal Aviation Administration passed a law increasing the required training hours for co-pilots six-fold. The regulation change was spurred in part by a 2009 crash that killed 50 people. The new rule also requires co-pilots have additional training for the specific airplanes they fly.

“And it had a severe negative impact on Great Lakes. They just literally don't have the pilots and if you don't have the pilots you can't fly the flights,” Sharkey said. After the rule change, the number of passengers departing from western Nebraska’s airports fell by anywhere from one-third to one-half.

McCook Regional Airport, in southwest Nebraska, changed from Great Lakes Airlines to Boutique Air in June 2016. The new airline will continue to offer daily flights to Denver.

“We've gone from 12,000 boardings a year down to maybe 4,000 a year. Which is totally unacceptable,” Sharkey said.

Sharkey said lower passenger counts also put small airports like his at risk of losing their federal subsidies for flights and infrastructure improvements. When viable, the airport is a big source of business and tourism revenue for Scottsbluff, Sharkey said. And that’s true of other western Nebraska towns as well.

“For Chadron in particular, the airline is really the lifeblood,” said Wayne Anderson, Chadron city and airport manager. Many other rural communities in the state have better access to big cities via major roads and highways, Anderson said. But not Chadron, which is up in the Nebraska’s northwestern corner.

“We’re 100 miles from Interstate 90 and 140 miles from Interstate 80. We're seven hours from Lincoln and six hours from Denver,” Anderson said. That’s why air service for his city is so essential.

In the last two years, those essential air service contracts for Nebraska’s western airports came up for renewal. North Platte, Scottsbluff and Kearney dropped Great Lakes in favor of Pen Air. Last summer Chadron and Alliance switched from Great Lakes to Boutique Air, a newer airline that flies 8-seater planes to and from many smaller airports around the country.

Click here to see a larger, interactive version of this chart.

“Boutique has been really a breath of fresh air,” Anderson said. In May, he said Boutique Air flew 438 passengers -- nearly double Great Lakes’ best-ever month in a 14-year span.

Anderson said that’s the marked difference that results “when you're a customer service based company with reliable service.”

Back at the McCook Regional Airport, passengers board one of the last Great Lakes flights to leave town. In June, McCook joined Chadron and Alliance in switching to Boutique Air.

“It's going to take us a long time to win back the confidence of our flyers to actually buy a ticket,” Mayor Mike Gonzales said. But he’s hopeful about the airline change. Because Denver is such a large airport, Gonzales said, a flight from McCook can take you almost anywhere.



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