Pilots wanted: Shortage may cause Great Lakes to leave Farmington
Officials: Changes in FAA regulations created pilot shortage threatening industry
FARMINGTON — The city of Farmington and Great Lakes Airlines are discussing ways to keep commercial flights at the Four Corners Regional Airport.
Great Lakes is the sole remaining commercial airline that flies to and from Farmington. In late September, it let city officials know it would stop flights to and from Farmington at the end of the month. The airline cited a lack of pilots as the sole reason for its decision.
The city has hired a consulting firm to help attract new airlines and to study what types of planes can operate well on the short runways at the Four Corners Regional Airport. It has also applied for a Small Community Air Service Development Program grant. Airport manager Mike Lewis is hopeful the city will receive the grant next year, which would help pay for marketing and subsidizing the startup costs for a commercial air service.
Doug Voss, the company's president, said the planes and other Great Lakes resources in Farmington will be transferred to California, where there are more pilots.
Lewis said there are three things a community needs to be economically successful — a railroad, access to the interstate and reliable air service.
"Not having reliable air service really knocks us out because we don't have rail, and we don't have access to an interstate," he said.
Because Great Lakes hopes to return and Four Corners Regional Airport is trying to recruit another airline, the federal Transportation Security Administration checkpoint will remain at the airport, and Great Lakes is discussing ways to maintain the minimal service needed to keep the checkpoint operating, Lewis said.
Voss said he is hopeful that Great Lakes may one day return to the Four Corners Regional Airport, but current regulations make it so the company cannot find the pilots it needs to continue operations.
In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration increased requirements for co-pilots of commercial aircraft. A co-pilot now is required to have 1,500 hours of flight experience and an Airline Transport Pilot certificate. Previously, co-pilots were only required to have 250 hours of flight experience. Airlines hired those with 250 hours of experience, and they typically flew as co-pilots until they reached the 1,500 hours that is required to achieve pilot status.
When it announced the change, the FAA cited the fatal Colgan Air 3407 crash of 2009 as one reason for the change. Approximately 50 passengers, crew members or people on the ground died when a plane crashed into a house in New York in that incident. An investigation found that pilot error led to the crash.
Because students are no longer able to fly as a co-pilot after they complete 250 hours of flight training, many are struggling to get the required experience to become pilots, Voss and Lewis said.
"The rule put the career out of reach of younger people," Voss said.
There are 84,000 fewer pilots now than there were in 2009, according to FAA data provided by Voss. He said the pilot population is aging in the United States, and pilots are required to retire at 65.
Voss said students often drop out of pilot school within their first 22 hours of instruction and those who do graduate often find themselves $150,000 in debt and without the required 1,500 hours of flying. He explained that most schools only train pilots up to 250 to 300 hours due to costs.
"Once you get to 300 hours, you're on your own," Voss said.
The aviation industry is hopeful that President Donald Trump's administration will relax the regulations.
"The regulation has hurt many communities in the West," Lewis said.
Great Lakes' decision will not impact the improvements underway at a taxiway at the airport. The $3.9 million repair of the taxiway is being funded by an FAA grant.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.