Collectively, the 415,000 square miles that make up Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota average less than 12 people per square mile. The rural nature of this part of the country is precisely why so many choose to live there, though that also means they travel disproportionate distances to access airports. That distance continues to increase as air service providers continue to cut service to these regional airports.
Air service relies on a spoke-and-wheel model, where rural destinations are connected through larger hubs like Denver or Salt Lake City. However, that model relies on the ‘spokes’ retaining adequate levels of service. Without it, large swaths of the country become less accessible to the public with flights only going between major urban areas. This is the reality many communities in the Mountain West are facing, and this should be Congress’ top priority when it moves to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
There are five factors we need to address to ensure rural communities, especially in the Mountain West, have access to reliable air service:
• Supply of well-trained pilots
• Cost of fuel
• Supply of smaller aircraft
• Consolidation of routes
• Lack of resources available to rural airports
The pilot shortage effects all airports, but the impact disproportionally hurts small communities. When there are only two or three daily flights out of an airport, losing one of those flights due to lack of crew leaves travelers scrambling for alternatives. When there aren’t enough pilots to cover current routes, the smallest communities are the first to lose service. This happened earlier this year when SkyWest announced it could no longer serve 29 of its smallest communities.
What can be done to alleviate the pilot shortage? The first and easiest step is to raise the mandatory retirement age from 65 to 68. Additionally, we should make the “1500-hour rule” more flexible so prospective pilots can get the training needed without unnecessary flight hour requirements on jets they will not be operating.
The historic rise in gas prices extends to jet fuel prices. While major hubs can make up for the difference in ticket sales, small airports cannot. I have fought vigorously in the Senate against the energy policies from the Biden administration that have increased gas prices, but President Biden has to realize how much damage this does to our national transportation system in addition to individual consumers.
Aircraft size is also a problem. Most flights going in and out of these communities have small manifests. Currently, the smallest commercial aircraft available is a 50 passenger Embraer jet. Most flights in and out of Wyoming, with the exception of flights out of Jackson Hole, a popular tourist destination, won’t reach even half of that capacity. Having smaller, regional jets available would make a huge difference in the long-term viability of our rural airports. Congress should work with airplane manufacturers to get smaller planes serving rural America.
As in any business, the least profitable product is the first one cut. In a moment where airlines are having to cut costs, flights to places like Wyoming are the first to go. State officials in Wyoming have to fight for every flight with state and local subsidies to ensure that people in Wyoming don’t lose air service. Through Air Service Enhancement Programs and Capacity Purchase Agreements, Wyoming airports barely make ends meet. Without serious reforms to the federal programs designed to help rural air service, rural communities will lose access to the larger network.
We also need to address the lack of resources available to small airports. When something goes wrong at a large airport a system is disrupted or a vehicle is disabled backups are in place to ensure timely arrivals and departures. That’s not necessarily true for small rural airports. If something goes wrong, like a failed weather observation system as was the case at the Laramie airport, air traffic is shut down indefinitely. Small airports need to be able to mitigate disruptions and ensure reliable air service.
These problems need to be addressed so that rural airports across the Mountain West have the chance to succeed and rural communities can thrive economically. The upcoming FAA reauthorization is the perfect time to address those issues. I am working with my colleagues to ensure that communities across the Mountain West can compete for businesses looking to set up shop and can thrive economically for years to come.
• U.S. Senator Cynthia Lummis, Wyoming Republican, was sworn into the United States Senate on January 3, 2021, becoming the first woman to serve as United States Senator from the great State of Wyoming. Born on a cattle ranch in Laramie County, she has spent her entire career fighting for Wyoming families, communities, businesses, and values. She serves on the Commerce, Science, & Transportation Committee; Environment & Public Works Committee; and Banking, Housing, & Urban Development Committee.