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Great Lakes Airlines ceases flights after pilot shortage warnings

Great Lakes Airlines, a turboprop operator with a network that connected cities in the western USA, suspended all scheduled flights on 26 March.

The move, which follows several years during which the Cheyenne, Wyoming-based carrier trimmed scheduled flying, makes Great Lakes the latest small US regional airline to shut its doors.

Though Great Lakes has not specified why it ended operations, the company has long said a 2013 pilot hiring rule created a shortage of pilots that particularly impacted small regional airlines.

Part of Great Lakes Aviation, the carrier marketed and sold its own flights and operated under a codeshare agreement with United Airlines. It had partnerships with several other US airlines, including American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, according to securities filings.

Great Lakes did not respond to multiple telephone calls requesting comment. The once publicly-traded company delisted its stock in March 2016.

“At midnight tonight… Great Lakes will suspend scheduled flight operations as an air carrier,” the company says in a 26 March statement. “It is important to note that the company has not entered bankruptcy and will continue to operate certain segments of the business.”

Segments that will remain in operation include a deal under which Great Lakes provides ticketing and customer service for flights between Denver and the South Dakota cities of Pierre and Watertown, says the statement.

A company called Aerodynamics operates those flights, according to Aerodynamics’ website.

Great Lakes’ fleet includes six 30-seat Embraer EMB 120 Brasilias and 28 19-seat Beech 1900Ds, according to Flight Fleets Analyzer.

The company’s network connected about 10 cities from Watertown in the east to Los Angeles in the west, with most routes originating from Denver, FlightMaps Analytics shows.

In February, Great Lakes logged 1.7 million available seat miles (ASMs), according to FlightGlobal schedules data.

But several years ago the company’s network was much more substantial. In February 2015, Great Lakes served nearly 30 cities and logged 7.5 million ASMs, Diio shows.

Great Lakes was among US carriers to raise concern about the Federal Aviation Administration’s 2013 rule requiring airline pilots to have at least 1,500h of flight time, up from a previous minimum of 250h.

Critics insist the rule stymied the new-pilot pipeline. They say the cost of reaching the 1,500h threshold dissuades pilots from choosing an airline career, and they say the smallest regional carriers have been hardest hit. But proponents of the rule, including pilot unions, say it ensures more-qualified pilots are at the controls.

“It is difficult for a turboprop operator such as Great Lakes to compete for qualified pilots with other airlines operating larger jet equipment. These jet operators have greater revenue-generating capability due to the greater number of aircraft seats, and therefore can afford to offer higher compensation,” says a Great Lakes’ 2015 securities filing. “All of these factors put Great Lakes at a disadvantage, and the result is that small community air service is being lost as we reduce our level of operations to match pilot supply.”

In 2013, year Great Lakes requested that the FAA grant it an exemption from the 1,500h rule on the condition that it limit 19-seat Beach 1900Ds to just nine passengers. Nine-passenger aircraft fall outside the 1,500h rule requirement.

“Great Lakes had been confronting a sharp reduction in its eligible pilot hiring pool availability that was a byproduct” of the rule, the company said in a 2013 statement to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

The FAA granted that request.

Other small regional airlines have likewise shuttered operations or struggled financially in recent years.

Earlier this year, San Juan-based Seaborne Airlines filed for bankruptcy court protection, though it attributed the filing to hurricane-related disruptions.

In September 2016 independent operator SeaPort Airlines ceased operations.

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