SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Huron is likely to become the latest South Dakota city to lose commercial airline service in September, as new regulations requiring pilots to have at least 1,500 hours of service continue to place stress on small air carriers.
The U.S. Department of Transportation in February asked Huron officials to justify why the city should not be dropped from the Essential Air Service program, which provides subsidies to small airlines so they can maintain flights in rural communities. Huron is served by Wyoming-based Great Lakes Airlines, and the subsidy paid to the carrier is not supposed to exceed $1,000 per passenger. Huron’s drop to 1,920 passengers for the fiscal year ending in September drove the number up to $1,302.
Huron officials responded to the notice by saying it was the government’s 1,500-hour pilot minimums that caused it to exceed the $1,000 threshold, said Larry Cooper, the Huron Regional Airport director.
Airlines that operate small planes have been dealing with a worsening shortage of pilots since the Federal Aviation Administration raised the minimum-experience bar to 1,500 hours in 2013 - from a previous 250 hours - after a crash near Buffalo, New York, that killed 50 people.
Great Lakes had been flying 19-passenger turbo props from Huron to Denver and Minneapolis, but when the new regulations led to a pilot shortage, the airline switched to 9-seat aircrafts and paired Huron’s flights with ones out of Pierre. On-time performance slipped and cancelations skyrocketed, Cooper said.
“There was no way in the world we were ever going to be able to board enough people to stay below that funding level,” Cooper said.
A telephone message left for Great Lakes Airlines chief executive Chuck Howell was not immediately returned.
Cooper said Huron, an eastern South Dakota city of about 13,000, had been doing fine before the new regulations. Its 3,485 passengers in the 2013 fiscal year kept the subsidy at $554, and it creeped up to $778 the following year as the passenger count dropped to 2,480. City officials have asked the federal agency to allow Huron to rebid for service from another carrier, he said.
Watertown’s city council anticipated receiving notice and beat the feds to the bunch by petitioning the federal agency to drop Great Lakes so it could seek a new carrier. Council members noted that Great Lakes canceled 337 flights to or from Watertown from December 2014 and May 2015.
In a letter to the department, Watertown Mayor Steve Thorson said the city’s passenger numbers dropped 91 percent since Great Lakes took over in April 2012.
“The passenger trend is ominous and the City of Watertown is unwilling to accept a fate of not being in the Essential Air Service program due to poor performance from its air carrier,” Thorson wrote.
Pierre continues to be served by Great Lakes, but it is currently evaluating bids to replace the company with another carrier.
Aberdeen is served by a Delta regional carrier, while Sioux Falls and Rapid City are served by several larger airlines.
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