Big Sky leaves Montana high & dry

 - April 2, 2008, 5:36 AM

The U.S. air transportation system lost one more source of “essential” service last month when Big Sky Airlines officially went out of business. Billings, Mont.-based Big Sky flew its last Beech 1900 service on March 8, leaving another seven communities isolated from the nation’s scheduled airline network. The airline chosen to assume control of those Essential Air Service routes– Cheyenne, Wyo.-based Great Lakes Aviation–has indicated that it might not secure and ready the airplanes it needs to fly the eastern Montana service until July.

The routes served the Montana towns of Glasgow, Glendive, Havre, Lewistown, Miles City, Sidney and Wolf Point. Meanwhile, the EAS-supported communities of Cape Girardeau, Mo.; Jackson, Tenn.; and Owensboro, Ky., have once again lost all scheduled service with Big Sky’s demise, and they too await word from Great Lakes on when it hopes to secure the airplanes it needs to reattach those towns’ air transportation lifelines. Other non-EAS cities formerly served by Big Sky, including Helena and Missoula, Mont., have lost service to Billings, although other airlines such as Horizon and Northwest fly to those places from Seattle and Minneapolis, for example.

In the Northeast, the former Big Sky destinations of Watertown, Massena and Ogdensburg, N.Y., awaited the results of new bids from Cessna 402 operator Cape Air and Beech 1900 operator Gulfstream International Airlines after all three cities rejected a previous offer from the now-defunct Boston-Maine Airways. On February 29 Boston-Maine lost its certificate of public convenience and necessity after the DOT declared the airline unfit for operation. It has since filed an objection to the revocation, issued due to what the DOT characterized as financial inadequacies, management incompetence and a lack of proper regard for the law.

Including Big Sky and Boston-Maine, no fewer than five regional airlines have disappeared or will soon vanish from U.S. skies over the course of a year or so. The first casualty involved Smyrna, Tenn.-based Jetstream 32 operator Regions Air, which the DOT shut down in March last year for problems with its line check airman and certification program. Early this year Mesa Air Group announced its plans to “discontinue” its Wichita-based Air Midwest operation–at one time the largest EAS provider in the U.S.–by the end of this year’s third quarter. 

Yet another Midwestern regional, Midwest Airlines subsidiary Skyway Airlines, this month ends its 19-year run of continuous operation when the last of its Fairchild Dornier 328Jets yields to SkyWest Airlines CRJ200 service. Midwest Airlines Group also plans to ground the Beech 1900s Skyway flies to four Michigan EAS destinations. Mesaba Aviation has agreed to take over Iron Mountain and Escanaba; however, no one responded to the DOT’s first request for proposal (RFP) for Ironwood and Manistee, forcing a second solicitation.

In fact, Skyway issued a notice to the DOT to withdraw service from all four of those towns in February last year. The following month the DOT accepted a bid from Great Lakes to assume all four routes, but by October the airline hadn’t begun service, prompting the DOT to issue another RFP. After Big Sky withdrew its bid this past January, only Mesaba stood willing to fly any of the Michigan EAS routes, and then to only two of the four.