BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Great Lakes Airlines will be leaving North Dakota by the end of the month after serving the state for more than two decades.
The Wyoming-based regional airline announced last week that it was suspending service to Dickinson and Williston. In January, it pulled out of Devils Lake and Jamestown.
Steve Kjergaard, the airport manager at Sloulin Field International Airport in Williston, said the biggest issue for the company in recent months was finding enough pilots to staff flights. When an airline can't staff a flight, it has to cancel it, and Kjergaard said the company has been having trouble regularly operating its flights.
Great Lakes has previously said it was pulling out of several regional airports because of problems retaining pilots. The company cited new federal rules that require co-pilots to log 1,500 flight hours before they can work for commercial airlines. They previously required 250 hours.
The new Federal Aviation Administration rules that took effect last August, combined with airline industry staffing shortages caused by longtime pilots retiring, has made staffing for regional airlines very difficult, especially over the past six months, said Jim Higgins, an associate professor of aviation at the University of North Dakota.
"Right now, there's clearly not enough pilots who are willing to go and work at regional airlines," Higgins said in an interview Tuesday. "Most of the regional airlines out there, the smaller carriers out there, they're reporting that they're not able to hire as many pilots as they want."
Higgins said the shortages will leave many rural communities without reasonable access to airline services. Dickinson and Williston, he said, are an exception because of the draw the oil patch brings to the area. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines began flying to oil patch airports in 2012 and 2013.
Higgins and Matthew Remynse, the manager at Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport in Dickinson, both said Great Lakes' departure reduces competition and leaves Dickinson-area travelers without a low-cost travel option.
Great Lakes has an agreement with Frontier Airlines that has allowed it to provide Dickinson travelers low-cost flights across the country through Denver, Remynse said.
Kjergaard, at Williston, said while he's sad to see the company leave, in recent months passengers weren't often able to use the low-cost benefits because flights weren't always guaranteed.
"It's a double-edged sword," he said.
In October 2012, before Delta and United started flying to the oil patch, Great Lakes announced it no longer needed a $2 million annual federal subsidy it received to provide service to Dickinson because the state's oil boom had made the service self-sufficient.
The annual subsidy came from the Essential Air Service Program, which was established in 1978 to ensure small communities retain a link to the national air transportation system.
Kjergaard said Great Lakes provided service to rural western North Dakota for years when others wouldn't.
"We'll always be grateful that they did operate for us here in Williston as long as they did."