CHEYENNE – Local airport executives were not notified before Cheyenne-based Great Lakes Airlines announced online Monday evening it was suspending all turboprop flight operations at midnight.
As of Tuesday, the airport has 90 days to secure a replacement carrier or the Transportation Security Administration will defederalize its checkpoint. Re-establishing the checkpoint could take more than six months, according to officials.
Cheyenne Regional Airport Director Tim Barth said he tried several times to contact Great Lakes officials, but his inquiries went unanswered by Tuesday afternoon.
“No one reached out to tell me this,” Barth said. “If there is any disappointment, it is that they didn’t tell us, because we had a relationship with them for years.”
Barth said while the airline’s decision to suspend turboprop air service is the end of an era for the city, he isn’t surprised by the announcement.
“We knew this day was coming for the last three years,” he said. “They were not providing us with much passenger service or revenue toward the end.”
Great Lakes provided only one flight per week from Cheyenne to Denver International Airport at its end.
The airline announced on its website and Facebook page Monday evening that all future scheduled flights are canceled effective immediately. It was Cheyenne’s only air service carrier.
Great Lakes Airlines employed roughly 75 employees statewide, Barth said, 36 of which are in Cheyenne.
The airline also owes Cheyenne Regional Airport, its longtime headquarters, roughly $325,500 in lease payments and operational costs.
“They have been making occasional payments to pay down the debt,” Barth said when asked whether he expects to recoup the money owed. “But, we’ll see.”
Wendy Volk, president of the Cheyenne Regional Air Focus Team, said the airline’s departure means a renewed sense of urgency to attract a larger commercial airline.
“CRAFT is still working hard to attract new routes and carriers,” she said. “I am thankful that we began laying this groundwork for some time. Cheyenne is not out of the flying business.”
As CRAFT continues its search for a new commercial airline to provide regular flights to and from Phoenix, Dallas and Las Vegas, there is now increased pressure to secure a minimum revenue guarantee.
“We want to be able to continue to welcome visitors and give our community options for air service,” Volk said. “We know Denver is going to get more congested, and we can’t rely on that as our only option.”
Barth agreed with Volk’s assessment, confirming that terminal projects continue as planned.
“We are 60 percent done with the new terminal and in talks with three airlines,” he said. “We are moving along in a good direction.”
Airport employees were not the only ones left out of the conversation Monday. Community leaders expressed disappointment in the company’s handling of the announcement.
“I was initially shocked that Cheyenne Regional Airport Director Tim Barth nor I were contacted by (Great Lakes CEO) Mr. Doug Voss and afforded the courtesy of personal communication,” Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr said in a statement. “But after further reflection, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Last-minute cancelled flights and their lack of reliability is simply a mirror of their leadership. I only hope they did better by their employees and provided some financial relief as they search for new jobs.”
Jim Klein, a retired business owner in Cheyenne, said he expects Cheyenne’s economy to be notably affected by the airline’s departure.
“I know there are a number of employees who will be disappointed to hear this news,” he said. “It’s always sad to see a part of our community go under.”
Randy Bruns, CEO of Cheyenne LEADS, the local economic development agency, said, “I think this was an announcement we expected sooner or later.”
There were no Great Lakes employees at the airport’s terminal Tuesday morning. But one customer, Ashley James, was looking for a refund.
“I woke up to the news, and these tickets are not cheap,” she said. “I can’t say I’m surprised, with the way things have been going for the airline, but just springing this on Cheyenne is unprofessional.”
Affected customers should contact their original booking source for a refund. If that was the Great Lakes website, email email@example.com for more information.
The company has not declared bankruptcy and will continue to operate Aerodynamics Inc. flights between Denver and South Dakota cities.
Great Lakes Airlines was established by Doug Voss and Ivan Simpson in 1977.
By 1992, the airline was a United Express feeder carrier through United Airlines. Through 2002, it serviced United Express operations with hubs at Chicago O’Hare and Denver International Airport. During this time, the airline touted nearly 100 cities served.
When Great Lakes’ status was downgraded, it became an independent carrier and has seen a steady decline in service.
By 2016, operations had dropped to 13 airports in seven states, according to previous reporting.
Great Lakes officials have long attributed a decline in reliable service to the national pilot shortage. The airline blamed federal laws that require co-pilots for U.S. passenger and cargo airlines to have 1,500 hours of flight time and a pilot certification.
Great Lakes Airlines has yet to issue any further statement on the suspension of service.