Combined, the 415,000 square miles that make up Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota live on average with fewer than 12 people per square mile. The rural nature of this part of the country is precisely why so many choose to live there, although it also means they have to travel disproportionately long distances to reach airports. This distance continues to increase as flight service providers continue to restrict service to these regional airports.
The service is based on a spokes-and-wheel model, connecting rural destinations through major hubs like Denver or Salt Lake City. However, this model relies on the “spokes” maintaining a reasonable level of service. Without them, large parts of the country become less accessible to the public, with flights only operating between major urban areas. This is the reality facing many communities in Mountain West, and it should be Congress’ top priority when it reauthorizes the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
There are five factors we must consider to ensure rural communities, particularly in the Mountain West, have access to reliable air service:
• Provision of well-trained pilots
• Fuel costs
• Delivery of smaller aircraft
• Consolidation of routes
• Lack of available resources for rural airports
The pilot shortage affects all airports, but the impact is disproportionately hitting small communities. When there are only two or three daily flights from an airport and one of those flights is lost due to staff shortages, travelers need to look for alternatives. If there are not enough pilots to cover current routes, the smallest communities will be the first to lose service. That came earlier this year when SkyWest announced it could no longer serve 29 of its smallest communities.
What can be done about the pilot shortage? The first and easiest step is to raise the mandatory retirement age from 65 to 68. In addition, we should make the “1500 hour rule” more flexible so that aspiring pilots can get the training they need without wasting hours flying on jets they will not have in operation .
The historical rise in gas prices extends to kerosene prices as well. While large hubs can make up the difference in ticket sales, small airports cannot. I have fought vigorously in the Senate against the Biden administration’s energy policy that has raised gas prices, but President Biden needs to recognize just how much damage this is doing to our national transportation system as well as individual consumers.
Aircraft size is also an issue. Most flights coming in and out of these communities have small manifests. Currently, the smallest commercial aircraft available is a 50-passenger Embraer jet. Most flights to and from Wyoming, with the exception of flights out of Jackson Hole, a popular tourist destination, will not even reach half that capacity. The availability of smaller regional jets would make a big difference in the long-term viability of our rural airports. Congress should work with the airplane manufacturers to get smaller airplanes to serve rural America.
As in any business, the least profitable product is the one that is cut first. At a time when airlines are having to cut costs, flights to places like Wyoming are the first to be cancelled. Wyoming state officials must fight for every flight with state and local subsidies to ensure the people of Wyoming don’t lose air service. Air Service Enhancement Programs and Capacity Purchase Agreements are struggling Wyoming airports to make ends meet. Without serious reforms to federal rural aviation support programs, 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 major airport, a system is disrupted or a vehicle is disabled to ensure timely arrivals and departures. This does not necessarily apply to small rural airports. If something goes wrong, such as a failed weather observation system like at Laramie Airport, air traffic will be suspended indefinitely. Small airports need to be able to mitigate disruptions and ensure reliable flight service.
These issues must be addressed so that rural West Hills airports have a chance to thrive and rural communities can prosper economically. The upcoming FAA registration is the perfect time to address these issues. I work with my colleagues to ensure that communities throughout Mountain West can compete for businesses looking to establish and thrive economically for years to come.
• US Senator Cynthia Lummis, a Republican from Wyoming, was sworn into the United States Senate on January 3, 2021, becoming the first woman to serve as a United States Senator from the great state of Wyoming. Born on a cattle station in Laramie County, she has spent her entire career fighting for Wyoming families, communities, businesses and values. She is a member of the Committee on Trade, Science and Transport; Environment and Public Works Committee; and Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Development.