- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Federal Transportation Department officials have agreed to announce Essential Air Service contracts for North Dakota communities this week, and to possibly speed up transitions for Devils Lake and Jamestown, where air service is threatened, U.S. Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp say.

Great Lakes Airlines is pulling out of Jamestown and Devils Lake at the end of the week - along with Thief River Falls in Minnesota and Fort Dodge and Mason City in Iowa - citing problems in retaining pilots under new federal rules on pilot qualifications that took effect last August. They require co-pilots to log 1,500 flight hours, rather than the previous 250 hours, before they can work for commercial airlines.

“Due to the unintended consequences of the new congressionally mandated pilot regulatory requirements, the company feels it is in the best interest of our customers, communities and employees to suspend service until we are able to rebuild our staff of pilots in order to provide reliable service,” Great Lakes CEO Charles Howell said in a statement.

Officials in Devils Lake and Jamestown earlier had endorsed a switch from Great Lakes to SkyWest Airlines to provide service under the federal Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes service to smaller cities. Wyoming-based Great Lakes provides service on turboprop planes, while Utah-based SkyWest flies jets.

Heitkamp, D-N.D, and Hoeven, R-N.D., said federal officials have committed to expediting the transition to SkyWest if the cities’ requests are approved. Great Lakes Airlines‘ contract to provide service doesn’t expire until the end of March.

The senators and a representative of Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., met with DOT leaders on Monday. The mayors of Devils Lake and Jamestown also took part.

“We are working in lockstep with Devils Lake and Jamestown to make sure the Department of Transportation understands how important reliable air service is to both of these communities,” the delegation said in a statement. “Over the years, we have seen firsthand the economic impact that EAS has had on Devils Lake and Jamestown - enabling businesses to expand and helping our rural communities grow.”

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