Fort Dodge, Mason City losing airline service

Great Lakes Airline has lost numerous pilots due to new federal service regulations

A new federal regulation requiring pilots on small airlines to have 1,500 hours of experience is causing a Wyoming-based regional carrier to end service to Fort Dodge and Mason City, effective Friday.

Great Lakes Airlines of Cheyenne, Wyo., has been unable to supply flight crews for its four flights a day to Mason City and reduced the schedule to two flights in an attempt to keep the service viable.

Great Lakes, which had 304 pilots a year ago, is down to 98, according to Chief Executive Officer Charles Howell.

"Due to the unintended consequences of the new congressionally mandated pilot regulatory requirements, the company feels it is in the best interest of our customers, communities and employees to suspend service until we are able to rebuild our staff of pilots in order to provide reliable service," Howell said. "We deeply regret and apologize for this inconvenience."

The new FAA regulation replaces a previous requirement of 500 hours of experience and was enacted in response to the crash of Colgan Air flight 3407 outside Buffalo, N.Y., in February 2009. The National Transportation Safety Board said pilot error was one of the chief causes that led to the deadly crash.

The rule requires first officers, also known as co-pilots, to hold an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, requiring 1,500 hours total time as a pilot. Previously, first officers were required to have only a commercial pilot certificate, which requires 250 hours of flight time.

After the rule took effect in August, pilots for smaller regional airlines like Great Lakes who met the requirement left in large numbers for the higher salaries of  larger airlines.

Great Lakes Airlines' contract to provide service to Mason City was due to expire in April. The airline received a contract two years ago when Delta Airlines ended service to Mason City with its regional Mesaba Air flights.

Fort Dodge will lose its link to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport when Great Lakes stops service Friday. Great Lakes Airlines began serving Fort Dodge in April 2012, providing three round-trip flights on weekdays and two on Saturday and Sunday.

Fort Dodge and Mason City plan to solicit bids for new commercial air service. Mason City has seen passenger levels drop from 5,879 in 2012 to 3,134 in 2013.

Fort Dodge has been receiving an annual $1,798,693 grant through the federal Essential Air Service (EAS) program to support its flights. When Great Lakes suspends service, the EAS funding will cease.

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