Tim Leeds Havre Daily News firstname.lastname@example.org
While the company that received the contract to provide passenger air service to small towns in Montana is continuing to work toward providing that service, a representative said the date flights will return to Havre and other communities is unknown. “There is nothing new,” said Monica Taylor, director of sales and marketing for Great Lakes Airlines. “We are trying to acquire aircraft, trying to deal with rising fuel costs.” Continued air passenger service in Havre became a question in December when the MAIR holdings of Minneapolis, the parent company of Billings’ Big Sky Airlines announced it was ending all of Big Sky’s Essential Air Service Flights. Big Sky had served Havre, Glasgow, Glendive, Lewistown, Miles City, Sydney and Wolf Point since 1980 under the federal program, which subsidizes air service to small communities. Later in December, the Federal Department of Transportation announced it would award Big Sky’s contracts to Great Lakes. DOT had awarded the contract to Big Sky in November, over Great Lakes’ bid for the contract. Great Lakes was the only other airline to bid on the contract. The companies announced they would work together to provide a seamless transition of service, however, Big Sky went out of business in March, before Great Lakes was able to take over. Bill Mosley of the U.S. Department of Transportation said Thursday that when contracts are awarded to new carriers, there usually is a transition period while the new airline prepares to take over the service. Big Sky normally would have provided service until Great Lakes started to provide flights, he said. “It becomes problematic when the existing carrier goes out of service,” he said. Mosley said DOT is encouraging Great Lakes to expedite the process. “We are in contact with the carrier and we are encouraging them to acquire aircraft as soon as possible,” he said, adding the DOT hopes Great Lakes soon will have a firm date for when service will resume. Gerry Grabofsky, the Essential Air liaison for the Havre City County Airport Board, said he participated in a conference call about the issue on Tuesday. “It’s pretty much the status quo,” he said. “They’re still hoping to begin operation (soon).” Hill County Commission Chair Mike Wendland said he believes people are making due without the service for now, but are hoping for Great Lakes to start operations soon. “I think people have accepted that we don’t have (air service) now, but with the expectation it is coming,” he said. Commissioner Kathy Bessette said that the service needs to resume, for more reasons than just the loss of passenger service. If the Essential Air Service is lost and Havre no longer has passenger flights, the classification of the Havre-Hill County Airport could be reduced, she said. That could seriously impact the airports’ abilities to receive grants for work at the facility, she said. Taylor said many factors are making it difficult to obtain the aircraft, including increasing operating Costs highlighted by increasing fuel prices. She said those costs are impacting all airlines. The Associated Press reports that the airline industry is battling record fuel costs that have pushed it into its worst crisis since 2001. Continental Airlines became the latest airline to announce cutbacks, saying Thursday it would cut 6 percent of its workforce 3,000 jobs and reduce its capacity by 11 percent this fall. The airline also said its top two executives will forgo pay for the rest of the year. Other airlines, including American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta announced cutbacks earlier this year. Taylor said that those costs and other factors have made starting the service difficult. If Big Sky had not shut down, it would still be providing service while Great Lakes prepared to take over, she added. “A lot of cards are being played here and we’re trying to deal with a difficult situation,” she said.