Quick, Quiet, And Empty: Wyoming's Airports Struggle With Low Passenger Numbers

Jan 9, 2015

Cheyenne Regional Airport.
Credit Miles Bryan

Correction: a previous version of this web story, as well as the audio story, states that Congress raised the number of flight hours needed for a commercial pilot's license from 250 to 1500. That is wrong. The requirements for a pilot's license was unchanged; the new rule requires co-pilots to hold an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, which requires 1500 hours of flight time.

If you flew to visit friends or relatives out of state over the recent holidays you probably drove across the state line to a major airport--if you flew out of one of Wyoming’s regional airports you were in the minority. Traffic at most of the state’s airports declined in 2014. That’s the result of a nationwide pilot shortage, but it means Wyoming’s airports will lose a big chunk of their federal funding.

At 7:30 in the morning the  terminal inside Cheyenne Wyoming’s regional airport looks like a weary traveller’s dream. It’s quiet, there’s no lines, there is even free parking. But Susan mark is still tense.

“I’m just hoping there is a plane and a pilot,” she says, “because I have had both not show up before.”

Fellow passenger Julia Tipsword says more than half of the time her flight out of Cheyenne is canceled. She says she airline does accommodate her though--they’ll put her on a bus to the Denver airport.

These sorts of experiences may explain why it’s so empty here: today’s morning flight to Denver has seven people on it.

Cheyenne Regional Aviation Manager Jim Schell.
Credit Miles Bryan

Jim Schell is the Aviation Manager at Cheyenne Regional. He isn’t surprised that flight is so empty: the number of daily flights out of Cheyenne has been cut in half in the last year, and cancelations by airlines have skyrocketed. This is a problem: Small airports need to have ten thousand people get on and off planes each year--called “enplanements” in the industry-- to qualify for the full amount of FAA infrastructure funding. Schells says in 2014 Cheyenne saw just six thousand enplanements: “typically they would average 12 thousand to 14 thousand.”

Because of its low traffic Cheyenne’s airport will see its federal  funding drop from 1 million dollars to about 150,000. That cut won’t kick in until 2016, but Schell says it will hurt.

“[That money] is being able to reconstruct portions of our runaway when we need it,” Schell says. It definitely is a big deal, and it is not going to go away.”

Airports in Riverton and Sheridan also will lose federal funding based on their 2014 traffic numbers, and that’s a hit to the whole state. The Wyoming Aeronautics Division says that the state’s airports generate 1.4 billion dollars in annual economic activity. And regular flights go a long towards convincing businesses to set up shop in the state. The airports may be suffering but it’s not their fault: the problem is there aren’t enough pilots.

A few blocks from Cheyenne Regional is Wings of Wyoming, a local flight school that used to train a lot of pilots that would fly for the local airline. But last year Congress raised the minimum number of flight hours needed to pilot a commercial jet, from 250 to 1500. They were reacting to a deadly crash cause by an inexperienced pilot, but that change has had a big effect on the airline industry. Building a few hundred hours to get hired on at a regional airline was doable, says Ron Burnett.

Rod Burnett at Wings of Wyoming.
Credit Miles Bryan

“But to get 1500 hours, that takes a long time. That could take a couple years.”

Traditionally young pilots joined regional airlines because they were a feeder system for national carriers. But Burnett says the new flight hour standards have upset that ecosystem by making it extremely difficult for young pilots to even qualify for a regional job.

Roger Cohen is head of the Regional Airline Association. He says regional airlines and airports are hurting now, but bigger cities are next. Cohen says about a quarter of the major airlines’ pilots are set to retire in the next six years or so, and they are going to need to be replaced.

“And where are those pilots going to come from? The pipeline has not only been shrunk, the pipeline has been severed.”

There is some hope for small airports like Cheyenne regional: A house Republican has proposed a law that would make the FAA keep them fully funded. That would help in the short term, but without a fresh crop of pilots, these airports won’t be bustling anytime soon.