The little airline that could, but didn’t

October 10, 2013

gla_planeIf you already read the Aug. 15 article titled “Great Lakes Faces Shortage of Pilots” that was written by James Chilton and published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, you may be interested in a broader view of the story.

In response to Great Lakes’ far-flung exertions across the western United States to garner public support through articles of small town newspapers of the communities to which Great Lakes flies, there may be a few things those articles neglected to tell you.

While it is true that the Federal Aviation Administration recently published the final rule increasing the qualification requirements for first officers from 250 to 1,500 flight hours (among other things), it was hardly the unexpected. You may have seen on the news that the Airline Safety and FAA Extension Act of 2010 included several new rulemakings to ensure the highest level of safety possible for the flying public. That’s right – the Act was created in 2010.

These regulations were quickly imposed following the tragic crash in February 2009 of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Buffalo, N.Y., in which 50 lives were lost. Back in 2010, other airlines (and most significantly, other regional airlines) immediately began planning for this law and implementing new programs to ensure their compliance with the congressional mandate once it went into effect on Aug. 1, 2013. Great Lakes, however, did not.

Any pilot shortage that Great Lakes is now experiencing is completely self-imposed. In 2012, the company had hired 74 new flight crew members, while during the same time period, 43 members left. This was a net increase of 31 people. In contrast, by this time in 2013, the company has hired 15 new flight crew members, furloughed 25, and 78 members took employment elsewhere. This was a net loss of 88 people. Instead of taking proactive measures immediately following the new law being passed, Great Lakes chose to ignore reality until it was too late.

The company had options to offset the attrition rates and still does. They could pay competitive wages to attract pilots who are just beginning their careers. They could retain pilots by agreeing to the proposed collective bargaining agreement changes that would provide for pay increases, decent benefits and an improved quality of life, thereby enticing qualified individuals to stay.

Instead, in April 2013, Great Lakes Airlines attempted a last minute change in their operations hoping to sidestep the new qualification requirements for pilots by petitioning the FAA for what is known in the industry as a “split certificate.” This would allow the airline to, in effect, run two separate airline operations under the same company name. One operation would fall under the Part 121 certificate, which the airline currently has, and the other would fall under the new Part 135 certificate. Part 121 is what the public generally thinks of when they think of flying – scheduled revenue flights with predetermined departure and arrival times. Part 135 flights are generally considered “on-demand” or charter flights.

The FAA granted the split certificate in June, requiring the airline to physically remove 10 passenger seats from each 19-seat Beechcraft 1900D to comply with Part 135 requirements, thereby reducing the number of available seats on Part 135 routes.

But flights operated under Part 135 are not held to the same federal regulations and safety standards as flights operated under Part 121. This means that the airline would be able to dodge the new law and continue to hire pilots with less than 1,500 hours of flight time, since Part 135 operations are not required to comply with the new ruling.

The new law did not “force the airline to drop 30 pilots” as the company stated. The company simply chose to drop those pilots, some of whom had been flying for the company for over a year, because they were no longer qualified under the new regulations. Should those pilots have been required to get their 1,500 hours at their own expense to continue flying for Great Lakes? Of course not, but the airline required them to do just that. This approach by Great Lakes Airlines was not only unfair to the pilots, but also to the flying public whose service is now being disrupted, while the EAS tax dollars continue to flow into the airline’s pocket .

Prior to Aug. 1, 2013, the SMART Transportation Division had been researching possible solutions to the quickly approaching deadline in an effort to save the jobs of approximately 40 pilots – a full 15 percent of our membership. For months, SMART had encouraged the company to explicitly make the contractual scheduling rules more flexible to allow the lower-time pilots to optimize their opportunity for flight hours. The company has hindered those efforts. Individual pilots networked with ATP Flight Schools, who bent over backwards to offer the airline incredible deals that would have saved the company time and money.

The SMART Transportation Division approached Congress and the FAA to request a short extension “grandfather clause” to allow the affected pilots the ability to continue flying under the old regulations in order to achieve the required hours. Congress indicated that they would have agreed, pending a forthcoming collaborative letter from the airline. The company refused to write the letter.

So, where does this leave you? Pure and simple, Great Lakes’ pilots need your help. Contact your mayor and town council. Your airport manager, your congressional representative, your senator. Your local newspaper, your local television station, your favorite blogger. Your best friend’s cousin who knows a “guy.” Give them the link to this ruling.

Tell them that you don’t think it’s right that Great Lakes Airlines uses loopholes to avoid legislation. Tell them that you don’t think it’s right that the pilots at Great Lakes Airlines are working for less than minimum wage. Tell them that you don’t think it’s right that Great Lakes Airlines substitutes the Part 121 service that they agreed to provide to your EAS community with a Part 135 service because YOU, the flying public, will have fewer seats available, a less-experienced flight crew, and less frequent service while the Airline will continue to receive EAS taxpayer funding.

Tell them that you don’t think it’s right that the pilots at Great Lakes Airlines are required to work more grueling schedules, under more difficult conditions, with less sophisticated equipment, into more challenging environments, while working for lower wages and under rest rules that provide for less sleep than pilots at any other airline in the country.

Tell them that you don’t think it’s right that Great Lakes Airlines profits off the backs of hundreds of hardworking employees, just like you, who do the right thing and come to work every day, just to make sure that your family gets home safely.

Maybe you didn’t know about this. Now you do.

Tell them.

See these related items on A tired pilot is a tired pilot, regardless of plane and Inside the secret world of tired pilots.