Big Sky employees launch attempt to buy airline


Employees for Big Sky Airlines, led by the pilots’ union, are attempting to buy the Billings-based business and keep running Essential Air Service flights throughout Eastern Montana.

Big Sky pilot captain Bruce Tall, who heads Local 15 of the United Transportation Union, and other pilots from Billings flew to Helena earlier this week to meet with Gov. Brian Schweitzer and his staff.

On Wednesday afternoon, they went a step further with a telephone conference call with local economic development and airport officials to marshal support to keep Big Sky flying.

“This is a Montana company and we’re all Montanans sitting here, and we want to keep this in Montana,” Tall said during the meeting, which included Yellowstone County Commissioners John Ostlund and Jim Reno.

The pilots are heading up the effort to buy Big Sky Airlines, but the acquisition group includes mechanics and employees from the other unions, Tall said.

In December, Big Sky Airlines announced that it was losing too much money flying East Coast routes for Delta Airlines after an expansion that started last year. Those East Coast flights ended on Jan. 7.

Big Sky is owned by a Minneapolis company called MAIR Holdings Inc., which announced last month that it is selling the airline assets and will effectively go out of business.

MAIR and Big Sky executives also made a deal with Great Lakes Aviation, based in Cheyenne, Wyo., to take over Big Sky’s EAS flights to seven Montana towns as early as Feb. 1.

Essential Air Service is a U.S. Department of Transportation program that offers federal subsidies for air carriers to fly to small cities and towns with routes that otherwise wouldn’t be profitable.

“I will not speculate whether or not Great Lakes or any other airline will be able to come in by Feb. 1 and take over the FAS in such a short time,” Tall said.

To complete the purchase, the Big Sky employees have two big hurdles: finding financing and persuading the DOT to reverse its decision to grant the air service contract to Great Lakes Aviation.

More than a dozen economic development experts from Eastern Montana cities that depend on the flights, as well as representatives of the Montana congressional delegation and the governor’s office, participated in Wednesday’s conference call.

“This is a grass-roots effort to launch a new airline,” Tall said.

Big Sky Capt. Eric Knudson sat in on the meetings when Great Lakes offered to take over the Montana routes and said Great Lakes executives were not able to commit to flights to Helena. Helena, Great Falls and Missoula are not subsidized and apparently are not part of the Great Lakes service proposal, he said.

“We believe somebody should be able to get on a plane in Sidney and go to Kalispell without going through Minneapolis or Denver,” Knudson said.

For Capt. Tom Witten, the issue is economic.

“We’re interested in retaining jobs in Montana and the revenue and the cash flow,” Witten said. “It’s Montana economic development that we’re trying to preserve.”

On Tuesday, Big Sky sent its employees letters stating that their last day on the job would be March 8.

Ostlund and Reno said they supported the concept and suggested that Big Sky employees ask local economic development organizations for gap funding. That funding would help make up the difference on the financial package of what banks or other financiers may offer.

Evan Barrett, the governor’s economic development officer, said seeking support from local communities like Sidney, Wolf Point, Glendive and Havre – which depend on Big Sky for air service – is important. But he said the issue is sensitive.

“It is delicate because in essence Great Lakes is the service provider now unless something changes,” Barrett said. “Yet we have a group of Montanans who say they want to do this, so we don’t want to shut the door on them, so we’ll give them the technical assistance they need.”

He advised the pilots to continue researching what money is available and to finish writing a business plan.

“Two companies are vying to serve Montana, and that’s better than none,” Barrett said.

Time is tight to put a deal together. If Big Sky Airlines shuts down, the airline’s air carrier operating certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration lapses 30 days later.

“Then it (recertification) is very tough to resurrect and very expensive,” Knudson said.