By MATTHEW KENWRIGHT
Great Lakes Airlines, which was contracted to provide commercial air service at Hays Regional Airport until May 1, announced Friday it will suspend service March 31.
SkyWest Airlines is scheduled to start service July 1, but the official date is under review as United Airlines writes routes to serve the airport.
Charles Howell IV, chief executive officer of Great Lakes, said in a statement the company regrets and apologizes for the inconvenience.
"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, community and employees to terminate service," Howell said.
Under rules announced by the Federal Aviation Administration last summer, co-pilots went from only needing 250 hours of flight time to 1,500 hours to have a higher certificate. This and other changes hampered the carrier's operations.
"Great Lakes is obviously being forced by the new regulatory requirements to substantially reduce the capacity it can provide to the communities we serve," stated a report on the company's website.
City staff criticized the ensuing increase in delayed and canceled flights. As the federal government finalized the Hays airport carrier's recent contract, the community rallied in support of choosing SkyWest.
Hays Medical Center, Hays Area Chamber of Commerce and Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development pledged a combined $125,000 to bridge the gap between Great Lakes' low bid and SkyWest's more expensive proposal. It has been determined the subsidy will not be needed. The three groups, Fort Hays State University and Midwest Energy Inc. also penned letters to the federal government in support of SkyWest.
Toby Dougherty, Hays city manager, said he is disappointed Great Lakes is leaving early, but he does not expect it to harm the airport. It gives the city an opportunity to promote service under SkyWest and the airport's new direction, he said.
"Their operational difficulties have caused a lot of damages to our airport, so them pulling out is not going to further that damage," Dougherty said.
Although Great Lakes served the airport since 1998 with typical dependability, the carrier will be remembered for its recent struggles.
"Their legacy will be what's happened the last year and a half, and how they left a lot of passengers stranded, frustrated," he said.
The changes in pilot regulations were a legitimate excuse because many of Great Lakes' pilots lost their qualifications, but the company failed to recover from the setback, Dougherty said.
"They basically just let the new pilot rules just throw the system into mass chaos, so it was just a completely random aspect of canceling flights to deal with it," he said. "There was no pattern to it, there were no expectations, there was no consistency, it was completely a random set of events from one day to the next as to whether your flights would be on time or canceled."
City staff approached Great Lakes about reducing daily flights to encourage dependability, but they did not adopt the suggestions.
Vice Mayor Henry Schwaller IV said Great Lakes leaves a mixed legacy because it helped the airport reach the 10,000 boardings mark, but its performance dipped in recent years.
"They not only had a contract with the federal government, but they've made a promise to us they would do everything possible to meet 10,000 boardings," Schwaller said. "We invested in them, we put ad dollars, had a marketing campaign ... and they disappointed us."
The company's canceled flights and poor communication discouraged many travelers from using the airport, he said.
"In a service industry, if you don't deliver results, people just don't use you anymore," he said.
Passengers with booked flights on Great Lakes will need to call the carrier's customer service at (800) 554-5111.