Cheyenne, Wyoming-based Great Lakes Airlines perhaps has felt the effects of the industry’s failure to attract new pilots as much as any member of the Regional Airline Association, as CEO Chuck Howell saw the size of his pilot group shrink from 308 to 98 over the course of a year. Consequently, Howell needed to find some creative ways to compensate for the loss, shutting down 17 cities since July and going as far as to prevent access to 10 seats in half of the company’s Beech 1900 turboprops, effectively turning them into nine-seaters and allowing their operation under FAA Part 135 rules. The airline plans to convert all of its Beech 1900s to the nine-seat configuration by July. By then, its B1900 fleet will shrink from 28 to 17, as Great Lakes simply parks the remaining 11. Out of the six Embraer Brasilias in its fleet, it flies only two.
Out of the 17 cities Great Lakes exited, the airline served as the sole air service provider in 15, said Howell on Wednesday at this year’s RAA Convention in St. Louis.
“Unfortunately, economically, nine seats in a Beech 1900 doesn’t work,” he lamented. “We at least have the backstop of the Essential Air Service funding to do it.” Howell reported that the conversion of the Beech 1900s to nine-seat machines cut the company’s revenue in half.
Now serving 30 airports in 14 states, Great Lakes depends on EAS funding in 20 of its markets, primarily in the Midwest.
“We get asked the obvious question of ‘didn’t you see it coming?’” said Howell. “My sarcastic response is ‘Yes, we did.’ But that didn’t change the outcome of what happened in terms of pilot availability.”
Since Great Lakes received approval to fly under Part 135 rules on the first of the year, it hired its first pilot class in February and has run five classes averaging about 12 students each in an effort to replenish its cockpit crew population. “Unfortunately it’s not a quick fix,” said Howell. “But we are seeing a steady stream of résumés from the universities…obviously we’re upon graduation time, so it’s a good time for us to be attracting new pilots.”
Meanwhile, Great Lakes sees itself flying what Howell called the nine-seat “Beech 900s” for the next 12 months while students slowly integrate into its pilot ranks.
“We’re having to reconfigure the whole company,” said Howell. “It’s almost like starting over and reinventing ourselves.”