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Mon, Mar 10, 2008

Last Big Sky Airlines Flights Mean End To Montana EAS For Now

Replacement Airline Still Securing Planes For Routes

Saturday morning marked the end of an era in Montana... and the beginning of a scramble for former customers of Big Sky Airlines.

As ANN reported last December, the regional carrier -- which had connected small markets in the western US since the 1970s -- lost its government subsidies under the Essential Air Service program. The federal contract was pulled when Big Sky could not afford to keep flying its 19-seat Beech twin turboprops on some subsidized routes it recently took over in the eastern US.

Effective February 1, the $8.5 million annual contract for service to seven Montana cities was awarded to Great Lakes Aviation of Cheyenne, WY. The Billings Gazette reports, however, the airline couldn't buy or lease the planes needed to serve the routes for at least a few more months.

So, after the last Big Sky flights Saturday morning, scheduled passenger air service to Glasgow, Glendive, Havre, Lewistown, Miles City, Sidney and Wolf Point went on hiatus.

The subsidized flights flew nearly empty most of the time... but some customers depended heavily on the flights. Some are already investigating alternatives in general aviation. Glasgow's Frances Mahon Deaconess Hospital used Big Sky to shuttle relief doctors in from other cities to spell ER staff. The hospital owns a Cessna 210, but administrator Randy Holom tells the Gazette he's reluctant to dispatch a piston single over mountains in the winter.

"That's probably going to cost us $3,200 a weekend to fly somebody up and back," Holom said. "Assuming that Great Lakes gets up and running by the end of July, it will cost us $3,200 just for ER travel for the next 19 weeks."

Shawn Hanson, General Manager of the Nemont Telephone Cooperative, said employees and board members flew Big Sky flights from Scobey so often the company bought tickets in bulk. Now, they'll have to fly in and out of Williston, "...and we'll be doing a lot more driving."

Other former customers are bemoaning the fact that no twin-engine aircraft appear available at reasonable hourly rates. It's not clear whether they've looked into on-demand services, which might be less expensive than traditional solutions.



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