Majority of flight delays at YVRA due to flight crew availability

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— The first two weeks of February delivered snowstorms from the Rocky Mountains stretching into the South and the Midwest, creating generalized havoc in the nation’s air travel system.

Yampa Valley Regional Airport was not spared, but flight delays and cancellations at the airport that feeds the Steamboat Springs resort community weren’t related to any problems with the weather in Northwest Colorado, according to the airport’s manager.

“Out of 182 scheduled flights (both inbound and outbound through Feb. 9), 82 were delayed or canceled, 30 of those due to weather, and 52 were either delayed or canceled for operational reasons — a mechanical issue or lack of a crew,” YVRA Manager Dave Ruppel said Monday. “There were only two that were actually canceled for mechanicals and six due to weather. There were no cancellations due to weather here, but they might have been (due to weather) in Atlanta or Chicago. Chicago has had the worst weather this winter of any place.”

Bad weather in Chicago caused two cancellations and numerous flight delays. Dallas also accounted for two cancellations thus far this month, Ruppel said. But airport snow-removal crews have kept the runway clear in spite of frequent snowstorms.

January passenger numbers have not been released, but YVRA saw more than 20,600 passengers move through the terminal in December in spite of a later beginning to ski season jet flights this season.

Monday was a typically light day at YVRA for arrivals but a busy one for departures. There were just 228 arrivals and 779 departures. The Chicago flight arrived just five minutes late and took off just four minutes behind schedule. The Houston flight arrived 20 minutes early and took off for the return flight on time. The Atlanta flight arrived 32 minutes behind schedule but was within 15 minutes of taking off on time.

Of four Denver departures on United Express, one was on time and the three others departed YVRA 20 to 30 minutes late.

Not all of the delays disrupted travelers destined for the Yampa Valley. Ruppel explained that flights are officially regarded as delayed when they are 15 minutes behind schedule, but delays become more problematic when they reach 30 minutes. That’s generally regarded as the point when passengers may miss a connecting flight.

Of YVRA’s delayed flights so far this month, 24 were within 30 minutes of being on time.

The number of YVRA’s delayed and canceled flights attributable to the unavailability of flight crews fits into a well-documented national trend, with a large number of pilots due to retire and fewer coming into the system. That problem is exacerbated by a new Federal Aviation Administration rule requiring most newly hired pilots to have at least 1,500 hours of prior flight experience compared to the previous minimum of 250 hours. And a new requirement invoked in January gives pilots more rest between flights, necessitating the hiring of even more pilots.

Ruppel said he had a conversation with a United Airlines executive this month who said her company thinks it is in a good position in terms of hiring pilots. She added that United is working to strengthen its relationships with flight-training schools.

Still, the pilot shortage is hitting small communities hard. An article in the Wall Street Journal reported this month that Cheyenne, Wyo.-based Great Lakes Aviation, which flew turboprops into YVRA in 2001, has had to abandon flights in the upper Midwest because of the national shortage of pilots.

The Argus Leader newspaper in Pierre, S.D., reported in January that 19 percent of flights in and out of that city were canceled in December, and that Great Lakes, with flights from Pierre to Denver and Minneapolis, Minn., was among the airlines struggling to maintain flight crews.

Ruppel said he expects communities that lack flight-subsidy programs and compelling reasons why people would want to fly there, like those enjoyed by the Yampa Valley, will continue to see service reductions.

“You’re probably not going to get service just because you have an airport,” Ruppel said.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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