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Flight cancellations have become common at Nebraska’s smaller airports, jeopardizing federal funding and forcing residents to drive hundreds of miles to catch a flight.
Cancellations seem routine at the six Nebraska airports served by Great Lakes Airlines: Alliance, Chadron, Kearney, McCook, North Platte and Scottsbluff, the Lincoln Journal Star reported.
The lost flights hurt business in those communities, but there isn’t much cities can do, said Alliance City Manager J.D. Cox.
New federal rules that went into effect Aug. 1 have caused a shortage of pilots for Great Lakes and other regional airlines, which has led to cancellations.
The Cheyenne, Wyo.-based airline suspended service between McCook and Denver last month because of the difficulty it is having finding pilots.
Great Lakes Chief Executive Officer Charles Howell has said the new federal requirement that pilots and co-pilots at small airlines have 1,500 hours of experience, instead of the previously required 500 hours, has left it without enough pilots to staff its routes.
Smaller airports must have at least 10,000 boardings per year to qualify for federal subsidies. Failure to reach the threshold could cost each airport $850,000 in federal funding.
Nebraska airports receive $11.2 million of the Essential Air Service fund’s $219 million budget.
In Alliance, the number of passengers boarding planes has fallen 79 percent from last year’s first quarter to this year. And 235 of the 516 scheduled flights in North Platte have been cancelled in the first three months of 2014.
“The potential damage to our community is just staggering,” North Platte airport manager Mike Sharkey said.
Grand Island is the only one of Nebraska’s small airports that hasn’t been severely affected by the pilot shortage because it is not served by Great Lakes.
American Eagle offers flights from Grand Island to Dallas, and airport manager Mike Olson said cancellations haven’t been a major issue.
“If anything, we have been a beneficiary of Great Lakes’ struggles,” Olson said. “We are actually seeing an increase in traffic from Kearney and North Platte.”
But it’s difficult for cities to switch to a different airline because the airlines are under contract with the federal Transportation Department to serve specific airports. And bigger airlines generally don’t bother with smaller airports like the ones in Nebraska because they don’t offer enough traffic.
“Great Lakes was the biggest (essential air service) flier in the country,” said Darwin Skelton, director of the airport in Scottsbluff.
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