FARMINGTON — The last commercial airline company at Four Corners Regional Airport plans to close its maintenance operations by the end of the month.
That means Great Lakes Airlines will lay off 17 workers in its plane maintenance hangar. Those jobs are full-time and all but three are night shifts.
Chuck Howell, Great Lakes' president and chief operating officer, said in a phone interview that the company, which has maintenance operations at airports in Cheyenne and Denver, is offering laid off workers about eight transfers to its Denver maintenance operations starting next month.
Despite the closure of maintenance operations in Farmington, the company will continue operating its two to five flights per day at the airport, Howell said.
"At this time we plan to keep those flights intact," Howell said. "The demand is there. It's not a lack of demand. It's a lack of availability of seats."
Howell said Great Lakes is struggling as a result of a 2013 Federal Aviation Administration rule that increased the number of hours first officers — also known as co-pilots — must have before they can fly.
Previously, flight officers were required to have at least 250 total hours of flying experience. Now, they must match the minimum 1,500 hours required of captains — the pilots.
Finding enough first officers with 1,500 hours was difficult, so to work around the rule, Great Lakes removed 10 seats from its 19-seat planes, but that has meant lost ticket sales and revenues.
In October, Great Lakes filed a request for an exemption with the FAA that would allow them to put 10 seats back in the plane. The company expects to hear back from the FAA sometime next month.
That answer, Howell said, will impact whether or not the carrier continues operations locally.
"We're not going to knee-jerk on the flying end," he said. At this point, we're going to take a wait-and-see on the exemption and go from there."
Darron Bradshaw has worked as a day-shift plane mechanic for Great Lakes for 12 years.
Bradshaw, 44, said the closure of the maintenance hangar was not entirely a surprise after the FAA rule was finalized.
"I've enjoyed it," Bradshaw said. "We're going to try to figure out where I'll go now."
Bradshaw's wife is a counselor at the hospital and they have two children who attend Farmington High School. Instead of going north to Denver, Bradshaw said he will likely pursue work in Albuquerque by living in his RV there and returning home on the weekends — so his family can remain in Farmington.
Airport Manager Mike Lewis said the federal rule has greatly diminished flight activity and made it more difficult for Great Lakes to make the flights profitable.
"Before the federal rule, we were flying about 17,000 people a year," Lewis said. "In 2015, we boarded only 3,000. The opportunity to buy seats — there's only nine to buy."
The airport still receives about 1,600 flights a month, mostly military, Fed Ex, UPS and other contracted planes. Great Lakes is the only commercial airline operating at the airport and Lewis worries about its ability to continue.
Great Lakes flies Beechcraft 1900s — twin-engine turboprop fixed-wing planes that seat 19. Lewis said an FAA exemption would help increase air activity and help keep Great Lakes in Farmington.
Besides Great Lakes' exemption request, Lewis said help for the airline could also be found in EAS, or the federal Essential Air Service, program, which funds airports in under-served areas to ensure flights in rural areas are available.
The problem is that Farmington does not qualify for the subsidy because it has always had an air service, Lewis said. Three other rural areas in the state including Carlsbad and Clovis are part of the program.
"We would have to not have air service and then apply for the subsidy, which is not an overnight process," Lewis said. "We're just stuck between a rock and a hard place on that one."
And Lewis said Farmington's relative proximity to airports in nearby Durango, Colo., and Albuquerque make the chances of being added to the EAS list unlikely.
Complicating the problem, Lewis said, the airline industry doesn't receive as many pilots from the military as it used to. Also, flight schools are struggling to attract young people into the profession since they have been graduating pilots with around 300 hours, a far cry from the 1,500 the new rule demands, Lewis said.
James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.