Boutique Air flights at the Cortez Municipal Airport got off to a bumpy start this year, and the company blames turbulent weather and mechanical problems.
Airport Manager Russ Machen said the airport had four canceled flights in January and 13 in February, the highest number in a month since the city switched to Boutique as its primary airline.
In March, while asking the Cortez City Council to support a petition that would decrease the number of flight hours required for some commercial airline pilots, Machen suggested that a nationwide pilot shortage could be affecting the airline.
Boutique’s CEO, Shawn Simpson, said most of the cancellations were caused by bad weather or mechanical problems.
On March 13, the Cortez City Council approved a letter to several Colorado lawmakers and the head of the Federal Aviation Association, asking for an exception to the training requirements for co-pilots who serve Essential Air Service airports such as Cortez. Since 2013, the FAA has required most pilots, including first officers, to log at least 1,500 flight hours before they can fly with a large commercial airline. Cortez Airport Manager Russ Machen said the difficulty of meeting that requirement has resulted in a shortage of pilots for many airlines, especially those that serve rural towns.
“Essential Air Service communities are suffering probably the brunt of the pilot shortage,” Machen told the council.
But Simpson said the training requirements for larger airlines don’t affect Boutique Air. Because its planes carry nine or fewer passengers, Boutique operates by the FAA’s “Part 135” regulations governing smaller aircraft. The stricter training requirements are part of the “Part 121” regulations that govern most commercial aircraft, including those belonging to Great Lakes Airlines, Cortez’s former primary airline. Part 135 regulations require captains to have 1,200 flight hours before they can fly commercially, and first officers to have 250 hours.
Simpson said Boutique hasn’t had much trouble finding pilots who meet those standards, so the pilot shortage has left the company largely unscathed.
He blamed the recent increase in cancellations on the weather.
Machen said that, out of the 13 cancellations in February, six were caused by stormy weather. The others, Simpson said, were caused by the “side effects” of weather – specifically, the December and January cold wave that affected the airports Boutique serves in Minnesota, Oregon and other northern states.
“We’ve had some issues with propeller de-icing on our planes,” he said. “It affected us especially in the northern states, and because of the issues we had in other states, it sucked up some of our resources.”
He said the propeller de-icing systems are a “weak point” on Boutique’s aircraft, and they tend to break down more easily than other plane parts. When too many of those systems broke down at once, flights to and from Cortez had to be canceled because the airline didn’t have enough working planes to serve all its airports.
He said the de-icing systems have been fixed on all the affected airplanes, and the company is working to acquire more planes by next winter in case they become a problem again.
But in the meantime, he said he expects fewer cancellations due to mechanical problems during the summer. Three Cortez flights were canceled in March, which Machen called “a much better ratio” than in February.
Despite the increased cancellations, Simpson said flights from Cortez are still in demand. Planes leaving from the airport are typically 70 to 80 percent full, he said.