SD air travelers opt to drive after flight trouble

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 9, 2014 at 5:32 pm •  Published: April 9, 2014

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Air travelers to and from South Dakota's small towns are growing weary of inconsistent flights, and many say they are giving up on regional airports all together.

Cancellation rates at the Pierre airport have soared, affecting local residents trying to get to weddings and even doctors flying in to see patients in rural areas, officials say. Ticket sales have since fallen.

Federal Aviation Administration rules that took effect last August require co-pilots to log 1,500 flight hours before they can work for commercial airlines. They previously required 250 hours.

Great Lakes Airlines was hit hard by the changes. The airline serves Pierre, Watertown and Huron in South Dakota with flights to Minneapolis and Denver.

Cancellation rates for departures from and arrivals to Pierre were lower than 3.5 percent in July and leapt immediately in August 2013 when the rules changed. The cancelations continued to climb to well over 20 percent this winter.

Mike Isaacs, the airport manager for Pierre Regional Airport, said it was doing well last year but business has dropped because of cancellations. He said he along with airport staff and city officials have received a lot of complaints. Doctors have missed surgeries, some people have missed weddings, he said.

"There's some pretty serious impact because of this. Folks, after they get stung once or twice, they're going to drive," Isaacs said. "And I don't blame them for that."

Radiologists who travel from Minneapolis to Watertown, S.D., on a weekly basis used to fly on Great Lakes, said Jill Fuller, chief executive officer of Prairie Lakes Health Care System in Watertown, which contracts with the doctors.

Because of cancellations and delays, they missed appointments with patients who drove up to 100 miles to see them. Now those doctors take a car service from 3:30 a.m. to reach their Watertown patients.

"That's the reality of delivering care in a rural area," Fuller said. She works with other out-of-state physicians at Prairie Lakes who have had to alter their routes, because of flight inconsistencies.

Watertown Mayor Steve Thorson said Great Lakes is subsidized by the federal government through the Essential Air Service program to serve the city.

"They're getting the subsidy, but they just don't land here," Thorson said. He said the city doesn't need a lot of flights every day. "We would be happy with two (each day) if they could just get them here on time," he said.

The capital city, which is smaller than Watertown, opened a new terminal in 2012 for the Pierre Regional Airport with hopes of running three airlines through it. But Great Lakes remains the only commercial carrier in the city.

Continue reading this story on the...