Even at the height of the pandemic, when air travel seemed to be falling off a cliff, Cape Air was still shuttling between the Hi-line and Billings and back.
“It never really dried up,” Billings Airport Manager Kevin Ploehn said.
After all, he said, the need for chemotherapy treatments and other life-saving services that rural Montanese can only find in big cities like Billings is still there. And the only way to make this trip quickly and cheaply was on a Cape Air flight.
These days, a nationwide shortage of commercial pilots is threatening this vital rural air service in ways the pandemic never has, and smaller regional carriers like Cape Air are especially vulnerable.
In the past two weeks alone, the airline has lost five pilots to major carriers recruiting needed personnel, Ploehn said.
“Some (of the national carriers) are just parking planes because they don’t have staff,” Ploehn said last week.
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Cape Air is what is known as an essential air services carrier, or EAS. The federally subsidized essential air service contract is awarded to air carriers serving rural areas of the country where air travel without the subsidy would be prohibitively expensive.
Cape Air, of Hyannis, Massachusetts, was awarded the contract for the third time in late 2019, and as it works to continue providing rural air service, pilot shortages threaten to severely restrict or upset it completely.
“It’s definitely an emergency,” said Walt McNutt, chairman of the Sidney-Richland Airport Authority Board of Directors in eastern Montana and a member of the Essential Air Service Board of the Air Force. State.
“It’s not just a situation today,” he said.
Cape Air has taken steps to ensure the service still has 10 pilots to fly in eastern Montana, but it has had to reduce the number of flights it offers to do so.
Until this spring, Cape Air offered five return flights between Sidney and Billings and maintained daily flights from Billings to Havre, Wolf Point, Glendive and Glasgow. For Sidney, it is reduced to two direct flights from Sidney to Billings, then combined with its two flights to Glendive which then continue to Billings.
The reduced flights reverberate throughout eastern Montana. The biggest impact could be at Sidney-Richland Airport, which the state has designated as a primary airport because it flies 10,000 travelers each year.
The primary airport designation allows Sidney-Richland to receive $1 million in annual federal funding, a portion of which must match the airport. McNutt fears Cape Air’s flight cuts could push the airport’s boarding numbers below the 10,000 passenger threshold threatening its primary status.
If that happened, the airport’s annual federal funding would rise from $1 million to $600,000, a blow for a small regional airport, McNutt said.
While some EAS carriers have reduced flights to address pilot shortages, others are looking to drop their EAS contracts altogether.
Earlier this year, SkyWest announced plans to end EAS flights in June to 29 of the communities it serves. SkyWest is the EAS carrier for Butte and West Yellowstone, but the 29 communities SkyWest planned to leave did not impact its service in Montana; most were east of the Mississippi.
In March, the US Department of Transportation ordered SkyWest to remain in those communities until another airline could step in to service EAS contracts.
McNutt thinks something similar is unlikely to happen in eastern Montana.
“(Cape Air) loves Montana,” he said. “They’re going to stay in Montana.”
Speaking on the merits, carrier officials said Montana is an important part of their air service.
Subsidies play a huge role in EAS contracts; that is the only reason commercial air service in rural parts of the country can exist.
In 2021, Cape Air received approximately $2.4 million per city to serve Wolf Point, Glendive and Havre. It received $2.2 million to serve Glasgow and $4.5 million to serve Sidney. In total, Cape Air’s contract to connect the five eastern Montana communities to Billings is worth $13.9 million per year.
Although the pilot shortage has reduced the number of flights offered by Cape Air in eastern Montana, it is still possible to get a flight between the Billings and Hi-Line communities each day.
And that’s a good thing, McNutt said.
“We don’t have a railroad, we don’t have a bus, we don’t have any other transportation,” he said of eastern Montana. “We would really be in a bind if we lost this.”
The immediate problem for rural communities that depend on EAS carriers and for the carriers that provide this service is how to get more pilots to fly commercial aircraft.
The FAA currently lists 164,000 pilots licensed to fly commercially in the United States. It would take 13,500 more pilots to meet current demand, and then 6,000 more pilots a year to meet demand and replace retiring pilots, he said.
“That’s if they did something today,” McNutt said.
A number of issues contribute to the shortage.
Federal regulations require pilots to retire from commercial airline service at age 65, and training new pilots is both expensive and time-consuming. The pandemic played a role. The COVID-19 shutdowns accelerated early pilot retirements and slowed the training of new recruits.
Additionally, many pilots now reaching retirement age did their military service in the 1970s and 1980s, and today the military is producing far fewer pilots than it did at the end of the Twentieth century.
But the biggest problem, according to airline managers and airport operators, is the 2010 FAA requirement that commercial airline pilots log 1,500 flight hours before entering a cockpit.
The requirement was born of a drama. In 2009, Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed on approach to Buffalo, New York, killing all 49 people on board and one person on the ground. In response, Congress passed legislation in 2010 directing the FAA to require co-pilots on commercial flights to hold an airline transport pilot certificate, which requires 1,500 hours of flight experience.
Previously, the requirement was between 250 hours and 500 hours. The sharp increase in hours means it takes longer for pilots to get certified — more than two years — and that makes it more expensive, McNutt said.
Worse still, it failed to fix the problems that caused Colgan Air Flight 3407 to crash, airline experts have said. The pilot and first officer of the flight had accumulated more than 1,500 flight hours. Lack of proper training and fatigue appeared to be bigger factors, investigators said.
The 2010 FAA requirement emphasized more flight hours at the expense of better training and created the bottleneck that impacts the entire industry today , airport officials said.
In an effort to train pilots and meet the requirement, Cape Air is doubling down and placing an additional pilot in the cockpits of its flights to help obtain the 1,500 hours needed. Cape Air uses twin-engine Cessna 402s, which seat nine passengers and require only one pilot.
Additional pilots who fly to earn their 1,500 hours then agree to stay with Cape Air for three years after receiving their airline pilot certificate.
It doesn’t always work, McNutt said. Especially now with the pilot shortage, the bigger carriers are poaching new Cape Air pilots, he said.
McNutt and Ploehn said it will be years before the pilot shortage eases. And even if the FAA changed its flight hour requirements today, it would still take three years to get pilot numbers to where they should be, McNutt said.
In the meantime, they hope Cape Air will stay in eastern Montana. When the carrier was awarded the EAS contract for the third time in 2019, it meant Cape Air had provided essential air service east of Montana longer than the two carriers that preceded it, Silver Airways and Great Lakes Air. .
And for good reason, says Ploehn. Cape Air was able to provide much better EAS service than the previous two carriers; Cape Air is consistent, timely and flyers know it’s reliable.
“These guys have always given the best service,” Ploehn said.