One year after Great Lakes Airlines announced reduced flights to and from Cortez, the number of local passengers fell by more than half.
With daily service to Denver, the Cortez Municipal Airport hit an all-time high with 11,205 passengers in 2007. Then the Great Recession hit, and by 2010, Cortez recorded just 7,046 passengers, a 37 percent dip in three years.
The following year, local airline passengers started to rebound, and by 2013, the number had climbed back up to 8,837. Yet, a double-dip occurred after Federal Aviation Administration officials announced new pilot training requirements. The measure slashed the number of available pilots, and the airport recorded a new low of only 4,125 airline passengers in 2014, a decrease of 53 percent from the previous year.
“We’ve hit a couple of double bounces – boom boom,” said airport manager Russ Machen. “I hope we can now start to climb back up.”
During the first quarter of 2015, monthly passenger numbers are down from 2014. For example, the airport reported 625 passengers in January 2014 but only 222 this year. The same monthly trend was evident in February, dropping from 496 last year to 175; and in March, 358 to 196, year over year.
With fewer pilots, the issue was compounded in Cortez when Great Lakes Airlines transitioned from 19-seat aircraft to nine-seat configurations in order to meet new FAA guidelines.
“We have experienced a shortage of qualified pilots, which has caused us to curtail operations and reduce capacity,” Great Lake officials wrote in a March 30 U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission report. “The pilot shortage and its effect on operations are expected to continue until we can hire and train enough pilots to reestablish operations in those markets in which we were forced to suspend service or expand into new markets.”
The airline currently employs 95 pilots. At this time last year, the company had 86.
Since January 2014, Great Lakes has cut Essential Air Service (EAS) to 16 communities, including Telluride. Last summer, the company was awarded more than $2 million in federal EAS funding to service Cortez through June 2016.
According to Machen, no other regional airline is available to offer service in Cortez.
“This is a one-horse town, and this is the only horse we got,” he said.
Great Lakes revealed in the SEC report that 51 percent of the company’s 2014 total revenues were generated by the federal government’s EAS program. As of last month, the company continued to serve 19 EAS communities on a subsidized basis.
Last year, EAS funds totaled $30 million. In 2013, the company received $55.4 million of EAS funds, or 47 percent of total operating revenue.
The Securities and Exchange Commission report also revealed that Great Lakes took out a $25 million loan last December to cover outstanding debt.
Since the first quarter of 2013, the company’s stock, traded under the GLUX symbol, has fallen from a high of $2.15 per share to 34 cents in the final quarter of 2014.
The company also reported a net loss of $7.4 million last year, compared with a net loss of $400,000 in 2013.