McInnis gets earful on airline service

Great Lakes Aviation unveils plan to reduce number of daily flights into YVRA

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— Great Lakes Aviation revealed a plan Monday to reduce the number of daily flights between Yampa Valley Regional Airport and Denver from eight to six.

The change is expected to take place next month, said Dick Fontaine, Great Lakes executive vice president for marketing. The airline also will alter its route from Hayden to Denver to account for elevation and weight limit. The new route, which goes over Wyoming, will add between 13 and 22 minutes to the flights.

Fontaine said the steps are being taken in order to address service problems and adjust to weakening demand. He acknowledged service this spring has suffered and said the airline underestimated the impact weight restrictions at the high elevation airport would have on his company's 30-passenger turboprops.

"We apologize for the poor performance here to start with," Fontaine said. "We expect our performance to improve in July."

Also on Monday, U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, heard constituent concerns about commercial air service in and out of Yampa Valley Regional Airport.

McInnis won re-election last fall to a fifth term representing Colorado's Third Congressional District. He was in Steamboat for a town meeting attended by about 45 at Centennial Hall.

McInnis heard professional pilot Michael Turner say commuter airline service between the Hayden airport and Denver International Airport has been unreliable this spring. He accused Great Lakes of excessive overbooking.

"They're bumping eight to 10 people a flight," Turner said. "That's 40, 60, 80 people a day."

McInnis told Turner there's little that he, as a congressman, can do about problems with airline reliability in his district. The problem, he said, lies with United's dominance of the Denver market and the flights that connect with commuter airlines serving his district.

"The problem is in who controls the Denver airport," McInnis said. "The Denver airport is, in effect, United's airport. We're not going to get competition in here any time soon. I don't know what else to tell you it's lousy service. We hear it in every community we go to."

YVRA Manager Jim Park said Great Lakes has, in effect, already reduced its number of daily flights by two because it knows it doesn't have enough flight crews to operate all eight dailies. For example, on Monday, Parker said, the airline didn't operate three of its flights and at least two of those were because there were no pilots available. That shortage of pilots fits in with a national trend as larger airlines recruit pilots from the commuters, Parker said.

Parker said the county's Airport Advisory Board has let Great Lakes know of its issues with service this spring and summer.

"I know the level of frustration is high to the level the Airport Advisory Board has drafted a letter to Great lakes telling them about passengers' frustrations and asking what they want to do about it," Parker said.

Fontaine said the airline is trying to address its limitations with weight restrictions. All commercial aircraft are impacted by weight restrictions as soon as the temperature climbs above 60 degrees, Fontaine said. Essentially, the air becomes thinner at warmer temperatures and aircraft propellers generate less torque as a result. The problem is compounded at a high elevation.

Parker said the airfield at YVRA is at 6,604 feet.

"That's been the root of our problem," Fontaine said. The problem has been particularly evident in the 30-passenger Brasilia turboprops flown by Great Lakes (the airline also flies 19-passenger Beech 1900s).

"In retrospect we might have been better off flying the smaller aircraft in there more frequently."

Turner said he believes that Great Lakes has been overbooking its flights far beyond industry norms of 112 percent. However, Fontaine said the number of passengers being bumped from the flights is more a result of the weight restrictions.

Great Lakes planned on selling 25 to 26 seats in the Brasilia, but at times, the 30-passenger aircraft has been limited to 15 or 16.

"That's not acceptable" in economic terms, Fontaine said.

Great Lakes will respond by routing its aircrafts northeast toward Laramie, Wyo., where they will encounter lower terrain rather than the roof of the Rockies on the direct route to DIA. The lower terrain will ease the weight restrictions imposed on the Brasilias. However, the new route will increase the one-way flight time from 40 to 49 minutes up to 62 minutes.

With the longer flight times, the airline won't be able to keep its schedule, Fontaine said. And correcting the problem isn't as easy as abruptly changing the schedule.

Now, the airline plans to officially change the "block time" allowed for the Steamboat to Denver flight to 62 minutes as of July 3, so the aircraft can plan a realistic turnaround between the two airports. Then, on July 8, the number of daily round trips will be reduced to six. The two flights will be trimmed at midmorning and midday, Fontaine said.

Reduction of the number flights will also help the airline trim costs in the face of weakening demand due to the national economy, Fontaine said.

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