After the last four Big Sky Airlines planes land in Billings this morning, taxi to their parking spots and unload passengers, an era in Montana flying history will end.
For three decades, Montana’s only homegrown airline has been flying small passenger planes to seven Eastern Montana cities. The so-called Essential Air Service flights are federally subsidized with fees paid by other U.S. airline passengers.
Effective Feb. 1, Big Sky’s EAS contract, worth $8.5 million per year, was awarded to Great Lakes Aviation of Cheyenne, Wyo. The transition was supposed to be seamless, but Great Lakes said it cannot buy or lease the airplanes to fly the routes.
So for at least several months, the scheduled passenger air service to Glasgow, Glendive, Havre, Lewistown, Miles City, Sidney and Wolf Point will end.
Although the Big Sky planes failed to attract many passengers in recent years, some Hi-Line businesses will be losing thousands of dollars.
Randy Holom, administrator of Glasgow’s Frances Mahon Deaconess Hospital, used Big Sky about three-quarters of the weekends every year to fly emergency room physicians to his hospital and give local doctors some time off. The next relief doctor flies in March 22, and Holom said the only easy option is to charter a plane.
“That’s probably going to cost us $3,200 a weekend to fly somebody up and back,” he said. “Assuming that Great Lakes gets up and running by the end of July, it will cost us $32,000 just for ER travel for the next 19 weeks.”
The hospital owns a Cessna 210, but Holom said he is leery about flying a single-engine airplane across such vast spaces with mountain weather rolling in from the West.
Several doctors who make such trips said they won’t drive five or six hours one-way to get to Glasgow or Wolf Point. Such a trip would be unsafe after a 48-hour ER stint, they said.
Fifteen years ago, the GMC dealer in Wolf Point started renting out one car. Today, High Plains Motors keeps seven or eight vehicles mostly rented throughout the busy summer months. Eighty percent of dealership’s customers flew Big Sky, said Marvin Presser, who is one of the owners.
“No matter which way you come from, it’s a long ways,” Presser said. “We can survive, but obviously if Great Lakes doesn’t come in, then eventually I’m sure our car rental business will dwindle away.”
In Scobey, employees and board members of Nemont Telephone Cooperative Inc. used Big Sky frequently enough that executive administrative assistant Pat Kanning bought plane tickets for her company in bulk, usually five round-trip tickets at a time. General Manager Shawn Hanson said Nemont will miss Big Sky.
“So we’ll have to look at airlines that fly into Williston, and we’ll be doing a lot more driving,” he said.
Deregulation changes all
Before the U.S. airline industry was deregulated in 1978, the federal government mandated where airlines could fly and subsidized the routes. After deregulation, airlines lost the subsidies and could fly wherever they wanted.
Eastern Montana wasn’t profitable, and like other rural areas, it wouldn’t have commercial air service if Congress hadn’t set up the Essential Air Service program. The program was to subsidize flights to smaller cities for 10 years until they could develop transportation alternatives. But EAS has continued for three decades.
In 1978, John Rabenberg of Fort Peck started lobbying for Big Sky and for EAS service to Eastern Montana. He has led the Montana EAS Task Force since its inception. Nowadays, the farmer and pilot said he is beyond frustrated.
“This is going to be a terrible letdown and a terrible disappointment. It’s the first time in 30 years that air service has been interrupted,” Rabenberg said. “Even when we changed from Frontier to Big Sky, there was no interruption of service.”
However, critics of EAS argue that it has grown too expensive, costing around $120 million per year. They also complain that the service in Montana is especially uneconomical because the 19-seater Beechcraft 1900s that Big Sky flew traveled mostly empty much of the time.
Supporters like Larry Miers, an economic development specialist in the Glasgow area, argued that public transportation of all flavors is subsidized and that sparsely populated areas of the country deserve air service.
He said he believes that Great Lakes is serious about coming to Montana.
“They’ve been aggressively pursuing Montana for three or four years,” Miers said.
No EAS subsidy money is paid to an airline unless the flights take off.
However, Rabenberg said the fact that the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded Great Lakes the subsidy when it can’t fly the routes means Montana has little bargaining power.
“There isn’t any. We call it a contract with the DOT, but it isn’t. It’s an agreement,” he said. “There is no teeth in anything if they don’t fly.”
In most business deals, someone’s loss is somebody else’s opportunity. Local charter companies may pick up some of the Big Sky travelers, but that hasn’t happened yet at Edwards Jet Center in Billings.
“By the sounds of it, Great Lakes will be in here in the next three months and we won’t materially change our operations for the next three months,” General Manager Robb Bergeson said.
Kent and Stephanie Potter, who own Northern Skies Aviation in Laurel, also said they expect only slight effects on their business from Big Sky’s demise.
Kent Potter flew for Big Sky for five years. The job was great, he said, but he flew a lot of empty planes. No twin-engine planes in the country rent for less than $500 an hour, Potter said, so he doesn’t know how one or two passengers can afford the bill.
“If you fly for two or three hours, it will cost in the thousands,” he said. “How can you fly for thousands when you’re used to flying for $180?”
Big Sky Airlines is owned by MAIR Holdings Inc., based in Minneapolis. So far, MAIR has rebuffed an attempt by Big Sky employees and Phoenix Acquisition LLC to buy the airline and keep it flying, saying the group didn’t have the money.
That buyout effort will be more difficult now with Big Sky and MAIR going out of business and attempting to sell or lease the aircraft.
Later this morning, some Big Sky employees will hold a last picnic in the hangar at Billings Logan International Airport.
Those who haven’t already drawn their last check will continue working on shutting down the stations, leasing or selling the airplanes and closing down Big Sky Airlines.
After flying for Big Sky for 10 years, pilot Eric Knudson has landed another job flying 737s or 717s for AirTran Airways out of Atlanta, Ga., and he may have to move his family to the Southeast. There will be no more walking to work across Montana State University-Billings’ campus up the Rimrocks to the airport.
The Big Sky years offered both fantastic flying and fantastic georgraphy to fly over, he said.
“It’s sad and it’s bittersweet,” he said. “I’ve got a new job, but it’s the connections with all the people in the rural communities and the families of Big Sky that are getting blown to the four winds.”