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Pilot shortage hinders Farmington airline service airport manager says

Airport manager says SkyWest Airlines service timeline is in doubt
The Four Corners Regional Airport looks to partner with SkyWest Airlines for airline service. However, SkyWest told the airport needed to be reconfigured for regional jets. (Tri-City Record file)

The Four Corners Regional Airport hopes to bring SkyWest Airlines service to Farmington, but the Utah-based company continues to face industry-wide challenges such as a pilot shortage.

During a presentation April 2 before the San Juan County Commission, airport Manager Mike Lewis said the airport has completed the necessary improvements to accommodate regional jet traffic, such as its newly upgraded runways. The airport picked SkyWest, based in St. George, Utah, because it’s the largest regional carrier in the nation and they had “great interest in our community,” Lewis said.

The upgrades were completed in 2020 by using about $25 million in federal funding, Lewis said. He said they “basically a tentative verbal agreement that we would start maybe in the spring or the summer of 2020.

“We've been working diligently for a very long time,” Lewis said about his and Farmington City Manager Rob Mayes’ efforts to bring commercial air service to the airport.

Before Great Lakes Airlines left, Lewis secured a small community air service development grant worth $850,000.

Lewis said Farmington was one of 240 potential cities to be designated as an Essential Air Service city; however, FAA approval is pending.

They also hired an airline consultant from American Airlines, who continues to meet with SkyWest.

Various upgrade projects started in 2018. In 2019, Lewis, Mayes and the airline consultant made a formal presentation with an in-depth marketing study to SkyWest.

“And it only made them more anxious to look at putting service in our community,” said Lewis, adding that it resulted in a tentative verbal agreement that they would begin in the spring or summer of 2020.

Four Corners Regional Airport Manager Mike Lewis says officials are working hard to bring SkyWest Airlines to Farmington. (David Edward Albright/Tri-City Record)
Study points to Farmington as a hub

About the same time, a study determined that for the 209,000 people who live within 90 minutes of the Four Corners Regional Airport, Farmington could be an effective hub.

The study showed that 29% of the air travelers went to the Durango-La Plata County Airport, 59% went to Albuquerque, 5.4% went to Denver and 4.6% went to Phoenix.

“So, it was a great news,” Lewis said.

They again talked with SkyWest, which sent an agreement letter in May 2020. The letter was approved by the Farmington City Council, and air service to Denver was to begin Oct. 15, 2020.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic began. Intense screening for COVID began, flights across the nation declined, and thousands of pilots retired.

“And if you remember we had a little thing called COVID going on at that point in time,” Lewis said. “Airplanes were parked everywhere.”

The newly paved Runway 5 at Farmington's Four Corners Regional Airport with tower and terminal in the background. (Debra Mayeux/Tri-City Record)
Pilot shortage exacerbates shortage

“The pandemic exacerbated the pilot shortage by slowing down training and hiring and it also created a wave of 6,000 early retirements,” Lewis said.

The airline industry needs to hire an average of 14,500 new pilots every year until 2030, according to Lewis.

“The problem is, currently we're only producing between 5,000 and 7,000 pilots annually,” he said, and the United States could lose about half its pilots to retirement in the next 15 years.

“We're still debating what the long-term future of 50 seat jets really is,” Lewis said.

Deepening the shortage, Lewis said, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2010 instituted a 1,500-hour flight minimum for first officers, and the Senate has refused to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67.

Bumping up the retirement age would have kept 14,000 pilots in the system, Lewis said.

According to Lewis, union support for the 1,500-hour rule impedes progress with the pilot shortage and should be lowered.

“We have to get them to lower the temperature of the rhetoric. They keep scaring everybody into thinking it’s safety, he said.

The fact that colleges and universities with aviation programs have been “granted a reprieve” and only require 1,000 hours has helped somewhat, he said.

“And they've given a grace to the military pilots of only 750 hours ... so that’s helped a little bit.”

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