May 21—Even at the height of the pandemic, when air travel seemed to drop off a cliff, Cape Air was still shuttling passengers from the Hi-line down to Billings and back.
"It never really dried up," said Kevin Ploehn, director of the Billings airport.
After all, he said, the need for chemotherapy treatments and other vital services that rural Montanans can only find in larger cities like Billings still carried on. And the only way to make that trip quickly and cheaply was on a Cape Air flight.
These days, a nationwide commercial pilot shortage is threatening that vital rural air service in a way the pandemic never did, and small regional carriers like Cape Air are especially vulnerable.
In just the last couple weeks, the airline lost five pilots to larger carriers who were recruiting for needed staff, Ploehn said.
"Some of (the national carriers) are just parking planes because they don't have the staff," Ploehn said last week.
Cape Air is what's known as an Essential Air Service, or EAS, carrier. The federally subsidized Essential Air Service contract is awarded to air carriers servicing rural parts of the country where air travel without the subsidy would be prohibitively expensive.
Cape Air, of Hyannis, Massachusetts, was awarded the contract for a third time at the end of 2019, and as it works to continue to provide rural air service, the pilot shortage threatens to severely restrict it or upend it altogether.
"It's definitely an emergency situation," said Walt McNutt, chairman of the Sidney-Richland airport authority board in Eastern Montana and a member of the state's Essential Air Service Board.
"It's not just a today situation," he said.
Cape Air has made moves to guarantee the service always has 10 pilots to fly in Eastern Montana, but it's had to reduce the number of flights it provides in order to do so.
Up until this spring, Cape Air provided five round-trip flights between Sidney and Billings and maintained daily flights from Billings to Havre, Wolf Point, Glendive and Glasgow. For Sidney, it's reduced that to two direct flights from Sidney to Billings and then combined it with its two flights to Glendive that then continue on to Billings.
The reduced flights reverberate throughout Eastern Montana. The biggest impact could be on the Sidney-Richland airport, which the state has designated a primary airport because it boards 10,000 flyers every year.
The primary airport designation qualifies Sidney- Richland for $1 million in annual federal funding, a portion of which the airport has to match. McNutt worries that the reduction in Cape Air flights will cause the airport's boarding numbers to drop below the 10,000-passenger threshold threatening its primary status.
Were that to happen, the airport's annual federal funding would drop from $1 million to $600,000, a significant hit to a small, regional airport, McNutt said.
While some EAS carriers have reduced flights to respond to the pilot shortage, others are looking to drop their EAS contracts altogether.
Earlier this year, SkyWest announced plans to end EAS flights in June to 29 of the communities it serves. SkyWest is the EAS carrier for Butte and West Yellowstone but the 29 communities SkyWest planned to leave did not impact its service in Montana; most were east of the Mississippi.
In March, the U.S. Department of Transportation ordered SkyWest to remain in those communities until an alternative airline can come in to service the EAS contracts.
McNutt believes its unlikely something similar would happen in Eastern Montana.
"( Cape Air) likes Montana," he said. "They're going to stay in Montana."
Speaking on background, officials at the carrier said Montana was an important part of their air service.
Subsidies play a huge role in EAS contracts; it's the only reason commercial air service in rural parts of the country can exist.
In 2021, Cape Air received roughly $2.4 million per city for service to Wolf Point, Glendive and Havre. It received $2.2 million for service to Glasgow and it received $4.5 million for its service to Sidney. In all, Cape Air's contract to connect the five Eastern Montana communities to Billings is $13.9 million a year.
While the pilot shortage has reduced the number of flights Cape Air offers in Eastern Montana it's still possible every day to get a flight between Billings and Hi-Line communities.
And that's a good thing, McNutt said.
"We don't have a railroad, we don't have a bus, we don't have any other transportation," he said of Eastern Montana. "We'd really be in a bind if we lost this."
The immediate problem for both rural communities dependent on EAS carriers and the carriers providing that service is figuring out how to get more pilots flying commercial planes.
The FAA currently has listed 164,000 pilots cleared to fly commercial flights in the United States. It would need an additional 13,500 pilots to meet the current demand and then an additional 6,000 pilots a year moving forward to keep up with demand and replace retiring pilots, he said.
"That's if they did something today," McNutt said.
A number of issues are contributing to the shortage.
Federal regulations require pilots to retire from commercial airline service at 65 and training new pilots is both expensive and time intensive. The pandemic has played a role. COVID-19 shutdowns accelerated early retirements for pilots and slowed training for new recruits.
Additionally, many of the pilots now reaching retirement age came up through military service in the 1970s and 1980s and these days the military produces far fewer pilots than it did in the late 20th century.
But the biggest issue, according to airline managers and airport operators, is the FAA's 2010 requirement that commercial airline pilots log 1,500 flight hours before they enter a cockpit.
The requirement was born of tragedy. In 2009 Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed on its approach to Buffalo, New York, killing all 49 people on board and one person on the ground. In response, Congress passed a law in 2010 directing the FAA to require first officers on commercial flights to hold an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, which requires 1,500 hours of flight experience.
Previously, the requirement was anywhere between 250 hours and 500 hours. The steep increase in hours means it takes pilots longer to get certified — more than two years — and it makes it more expensive, McNutt said.
Worst of all, it didn't address the problems that caused the crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407, airline experts have said. Both the pilot and first officer on the flight had more than 1,500 flight hours. Lack of proper training and fatigue appeared to be bigger factors, investigators said.
FAA's 2010 requirement put a premium on more flight hours at the expense of better training and it created the bottleneck that's impacted the entire industry today, airport officials said.
In an effort to train up pilots and meet the requirement, Cape Air doubles up and puts an extra pilot in the cockpits of its flights to help get the needed 1,500 hours. Cape Air flies twin engine Cessna 402s, which seat nine passengers and require only one pilot.
Those extra pilots who fly to get their 1,500 hours then agree to remain with Cape Air for three years after receiving their Airline Transport Pilot certificate.
It doesn't always work, McNutt said. Especially now with the pilot shortage, bigger carriers are poaching Cape Air's newly minted pilots, he said.
McNutt and Ploehn said it'll be years before the pilot shortage eases. And even if the FAA changed its flight hours requirement today, it would still take three years to get pilot numbers up to where they should be, McNutt said.
In the meantime they're hopeful Cape Air will remain in Eastern Montana. When the carrier secured the EAS contract for a third time in 2019 it meant Cape Air had provided essential air service to Eastern Montana longer than the two carriers that proceeded it, Silver Airways and Great Lakes Air.
And for good reason, Ploehn said. Cape Air's been able to provide EAS service much better than the previous two carriers; Cape Air is consistent, timely and flyers know its reliable.
"These guys have always run the best service," Ploehn said.