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At 7:30 in the morning, the terminal inside Cheyenne, Wyoming’s regional airport looks like a weary traveler’s dream. It’s quiet, there are no lines and there's even free parking. But Susan Mark is still tense.
“I’m just hoping there is a plane and a pilot,” she says. “Because I have had both not show up before.”
Fellow passenger Julia Tipsword says more than half the time her flight out of Cheyenne is canceled. She says the airline does accommodate her though — it puts her on a bus to the Denver airport.
These sorts of experiences may explain why its so empty here: Today’s morning flight to Denver has seven people on it.
Jim Schell is the Aviation Manager at Cheyenne Regional. He isn't surprised the flight is so empty. The number of daily flights out of Cheyenne has been cut in half in the last year, and cancellations have skyrocketed. Small airports need to have 10,000 people get on and off planes each year to qualify for the full amount of FAA infrastructure funding. For Cheyenne that’s $1 million annually. Schell says this year they won’t even get to half that many passengers, and as a result their federal funding is going to drop by about $800,000.
“[That money] is being able to reconstruct portions of our runaway when we need it,” Schell says. It definitely is a big deal, and it is not going to go away.”
Lots of small airports are on track to lose FAA funding this year, and that is going to hurt. In Wyoming alone, regional airports generate $1.4 billion in annual economic activity. The regional airports may be suffering but it is not their fault.
The problem is a lack of pilots.
A few blocks from Cheyenne Regional is Wings of Wyoming, a local flight school that used to train a lot of pilots that would fly for the local airline. But last year Congress raised the minimum number of flight hours needed for a commercial pilot license from 250 to 1500. Members were reacting to a deadly crash cause by an inexperienced pilot. But that change has had a big effect on the airline industry. Building a few hundred hours to get hired at a regional airline was doable, says flight instructor Ron Burnett.
“But to get 1500 hours, that takes a long time. That could take a couple years,” he says.
Traditionally, young pilots joined regional airlines because they were a feeder system for national carriers. But Burnett says the new flight hour standards have upset that system by making it extremely difficult for young pilots to even qualify for a regional job.
Roger Cohen is head of the Regional Airline Association. He says regional airlines and airports are hurting now, but bigger cities are next. Cohen says about a quarter of the pilots at major airlines are set to retire in the next six years or so, and they're going to need to be replaced.
“And where are those pilots going to come from? The pipeline has not only been shrunk, the pipeline has been severed.”
There is some hope for small airports like Cheyenne regional: A House Republican has proposed a law that would require the FAA to keep them fully funded. That would help in the short term, but without a fresh crop of pilots, these airports won’t be bustling anytime soon.
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