SkyWest, like all airlines in the United States right now, is in the midst of a pilot shortage.
But the regional airline that services most of the airports in Wyoming has come up with a unique idea to stretch their resources.
SkyWest, under a new subsidiary called “SkyWest Charter,” has made an application with the U.S. Department of Transportation to modify a number of Canadair jets to only hold 30 passengers, thereby allowing pilots with lower-level certifications to operate the aircraft as a “public charter.”
“Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport here in Rock Springs was listed in (SkyWest’s) DOT application for a Part 135 charter certificate that would allow them to fly a 30-seat CRJ 200,” said Devon Brubaker, Director for the airport. “So it’s the same planes they fly today, but with 30 seats instead of 50 seats.”
The Part 135 rules are more relaxed than the Part 121 rules that all scheduled air carriers operate under. The difference is that pilots operating aircraft under Part 135 do not need to hold an airline transport pilot certificate, which requires them to have logged at least 1,500 flight hours.
A representative for SkyWest told Cowboy State Daily that the company’s standards have not gone down — rather, the charter service would simply provide additional regulatory flexibility.
“It is our full intent to hold this new entity to the same high standards of safety, reliability, and service that the SkyWest name has come to represent,” SkyWest’s spokesperson said in a statement.
For Rock Springs’ regional airport, the new flexibility is good news.
“To the best of our knowledge at this time, it looks like it would be used to supplement our service as an opportunity to get us back to where we were pre-pandemic, with at least two daily flights and maybe more,” Brubaker told Cowboy State Daily.
He said that between 2016 and 2019, boardings at Sweetwater County’s airport increased 57% – then came COVID-19.
“Obviously the pandemic decimated air travel across the country,” Brubaker said. “We started to get back to our 2019 numbers in November, December of 2021. And then the pilot shortage reared its ugly head the last week of December, early January.”
Brubaker said that in order to maintain consistency and reduce the possibility of canceled flights due to a shortage of pilots, all the airlines started to reduce the number of available flights. In Rock Springs, that meant that SkyWest dropped down to one flight a day, which Brubaker said is currently running at about 86% capacity.
“In our industry, and 86% load factor might as well be full,” he said. “That basically means that on peak travel days, you’re not going to find seats unless you book early.”
“We see travel demand far outpacing what we saw in 2019,” Brubaker continued. “We just don’t have the capacity.”
While SkyWest’s charter service option may be good news for Rock Springs, on the other side of the state it could be a detriment.
“We used to have three flights a day, every day,” said Todd Chatfield, director of the Northeast Wyoming Regional Airport in Gillette. “We’re down to two flights a day, except for Tuesdays and Thursdays when we’re down to one plane a day.”
Chatfield told Cowboy State Daily that, like Rock Springs, flights in Gillette are filling up at around an 85% load factor, with planes that have 50 seats.
“If we went back to three flights a day with the 30 passenger seats, that would still be a loss of 10 seats (per day),” Chatfield said.
However, he said that there is a possibility that SkyWest could continue providing 50-seat planes and bring in the smaller capacity aircraft at busier times.
“I did sign a public comment deal, and I did say that we were in favor of this, but that’s when I thought we would just keep the extra planes,” Chatfield said. “They wouldn’t take my 50-passenger planes away and bring in 30.”
Chatfield acknowledged that SkyWest’s leaders are trying to address the pilot shortage in any way they can.
“That’s really encouraging that they’re trying to find different ways to serve Wyoming,” he said. “But if they start taking my 50 seats and bringing in 30, and they don’t bring (what we get) in the same amount of planes I get now, that’s gonna hurt me.”
“We’ve been assured by SkyWest airlines that their commitment is to improving our service, not hurting our service here in Sweetwater County, and around the state as well,” Brubaker said.