Tim Leeds Havre Daily News firstname.lastname@example.org
With Saturday the scheduled day for the last flight of Big Sky Airlines to Havre, when air service will resume is up in the air. However, Montana’s members of Congress have taken up the battle and called for the players to continue service. Their offices said today they are continuing to work on the issue. Monica Taylor, director of sales and marketing for Great Lakes Airlines, the company selected to take over essential air service flights to Havre and six other Montana communities, said it is unknown when Great Lakes’ Montana flights will begin. “Great Lakes is still in the process of locating aircraft to serve the market. We probably won’t have the seamless transition hoped for,” Taylor said. “We’re hinging it on getting the aircraft so there is no timeline at this point.” Big Sky announced in December it would cancel its essential air service flights in the eastern United States and in Montana. After flights are finished this week, the process of liquidating or selling assets will begin, with the closing of its parent company, MAIR Holdings of Minneapolis, expected in six to eight months, a company Spokesperson said last month. Molly Bare of Big Sky said that Friday will be the last day for outgoing flights for the airline. On Saturday, the airline will fly people with return tickets home, but there will be no outbound flights, she said. Bare said anyone who has flown out and needs a return flight, or who has open-dated tickets, should contact Big Sky at (406) 247-3910 to make arrangements for their return flight or for a refund of unused tickets. “If people are out there and need to get back on the eighth they need to call and make reservations,” she said. The end of an era Big Sky Airlines, founded in Billings in 1976, has provided flights to Havre and to Glendive, Lewistown, Miles City, Sydney and Wolf Point in the essential air service program since June 1980. In EAS, the federal government subsidizes air service to small communities where the service is generally unprofitable. In December, about one month after the U. S. Department of Transportation awarded the EAS contract for Montana to Big Sky, MAIR Holdings announced it was cancelling its EAS service due to financial difficulties. In February it rejected an offer by a group of Big Sky employees to buy the company and continue its operation, saying the company would have to finance the sale. The loss of service is hitting Montana residents and Big Sky employees. “It's a really sad deal. It’s too bad for Montana to see a Montana airline shutting down,” said Jesse Martens, a Havre native and pilot for Big Sky Airlines. “I feel bad for eastern Montana.” Martens said Friday is his last day to fly for Big Sky. He has already lined up a job with Republic Airways, based out of Indianapolis, after his last day with Big Sky. He would have rather continued to fly in Montana, he added. The loss could hurt the travel plans of hundreds of potential passengers in Montana, including Havre, depending on how long it takes to resume service. Bare said the airline transported 1,432 passengers to and from Havre in 2007, averaging about 120 a month. While Big Sky also used to ship freight, Martens said Big Sky stopped shipping freight to Havre about eight months ago. Plans for seamless transition fall through In December, after Big Sky announced it would stop flights, the Department of Transportation assigned the EAS contract to Great Lakes without reopening the bidding process. It ordered Big Sky to continue service until Great Lakes could take over, and ordered that if the Wyoming company could start before this month, Big Sky could stop service without the normally required 90-day notice. In November, the department awarded the EAS contract to Big Sky instead of awarding it to the Cheyenne, Wyo.-based Great Lakes, the only other bidder for the contract. Bill Mosely, public information officer for the Department of Transportation in Washington, said the intent was to make sure service was not interrupted. Because Big Sky is shutting down and Great Lakes is not ready, there is no way to make that happen, he said. “In this case, Big Sky is shutting down so there is no one to hold (to the contract),” Mosely said. “ We are encouraging Great Lakes to take over service as soon as possible.” Having EAS shut down is fairly unusual but not unknown, Mosely added. He said Big Sky’s shut down is impacting communities in the eastern part of the country as well as in Montana. Five communities in New York, one in Tennessee, one in Kentucky and one in Missouri were also impacted by Big Sky’s announcement. Mosely said all but three in New York now have new EAS carriers assigned. “There was some hiatus, some delay, in all of them,” he said. Bare said the problem of Big Sky continuing operation is two-fold: the loss of passengers since the airline announced it would close and the loss of employees. “Not very many people are flying it costs us an awful lot to run,” she said, adding that the loss of personnel is also making it difficult to continue operations. “We have to have personnel who are qualified,” Bare said. “You just don’t want to jeapordize the quality. People are moving on to other jobs.” Work to continue the service Montana’s U.S. senators and representative have stepped up to say loss of service for any length of time is unacceptable, and are calling for action to continue the flights. “Temporarily shutting down these flights will effectively shut down local airports, prove burdensome and costly for residents traveling on business or for medical care, and (affect) the overall economy of eastern Montana,” Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said in a press release. “The Department of Transportation and Great Lakes Aviation need to live up to their commitments and find a way to keep this disruption from happening.” Rehberg sent a letter to the Department of Transportation saying the people of Montana should not be made to pay for a lack of foresight and coordination between the department and Great Lakes. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, both Montana Democrats, called for MAIR Holding to keep Big Sky running. In a joint press release, Baucus and Tester said the ending of the air service would be a devastating blow to Montanans. “Montana is one of the largest states in the U. S., and our constituents frequently must travel long distances,” Baucus and Tester wrote in a letter to MAIR. “Only a reliable air travel network can enable them to do so affordably.” Tester and Baucus say company statements show MAIR has millions in cash in its holdings, and that they want to work with the company to keep the Big Sky flights going until another airline can pick up the service.