RIVERTON — The first thing you notice about Riverton Regional Airport is the free parking. Inside the terminal, taxidermy animals line the walls — a stuffed mountain goat is perched near the ceiling. Jackrabbits hop along the edge of the runway. A friendly police officer greets passengers.
For a long time, all this small town airport lacked was flights.
Mike Bailey used to show up at Riverton Regional Airport unsure whether his plane would be there. Bailey, who travels for his work as a petroleum marketer, gave up on using his local airport several years ago and began driving to Casper for connecting flights to Denver.
“There’s nothing wrong with Casper airport except that it’s two hours away,” Bailey said.
Bailey was one of many victims of canceled flights by Great Lakes Airlines, the Cheyenne-based air carrier plagued by staffing issues since the Federal Aviation Association raised the requirements for commercial pilots in 2013.
Riverton mayor John “Lars” Baker said there were periods where the airline was canceling half its flights.
“They’d have four flights scheduled, and some days one of them would make it,” Baker said.
The unreliable nature of Great Lakes service led many Fremont County residents turn to Casper, or even make the long drive to Denver or Salt Lake City, to leave town.
But things have been looking up since Denver Air Connection joined Great Lakes in July. Public Works director Kyle Butterfield said the new carrier has not canceled a single flight and is restoring confidence in local air service.
Denver Air also offers flights to Denver from Sheridan and a handful of other cities in Colorado.
Gone are the days of exponential declines in passengers flying out of Riverton.
The trouble began with the new Federal Aviation Administration regulations in the summer of 2013. In response to a commuter airline crash in New York, the agency raised the number of training hours pilots for small commercial flights needed from 500 to 1500 — the same as major airlines.
That made it difficult for regional airlines like Great Lakes to find pilots who would accept the lower pay and often grueling schedules that come with serving small markets.
Butterfield said that prior to 2013 Riverton airport was averaging 13,000 boardings each year with highs of 18,000 passengers flying out of Fremont County. But after Great Lakes began canceling flights that number plummeted.
“We were losing our flying markets in halves almost each year,” Butterfield said.
Over 1,500 passengers were flying out of Riverton in July three years ago. But last July only 207 passengers boarded flights. When the airport dropped below 10,000 annual boardings it lost $850,000 in federal funding.
Local citizens organized a committee to solve the problem and ultimately made an agreement with Denver Air Connection to guarantee $200,000 in minimum annual revenue. That means if the company makes less than that amount the city is on the hook to cover the difference.
Great Lakes does not receive a revenue guarantee.
The public works director said he expects the city to pay a substantial subsidy for at least the next few years but Butterfield said Riverton is receiving assistance from the state, county and federal government along with the nearby town of Lander.
“We have a challenge regaining our market and getting people to believe in Riverton Regional again,” he said. “We understand it will be a commitment of several years before the Denver Air Connection route is self-sustaining.”
Asked how Denver Air is able to provide consistent service while Great Lakes struggled, Baker, the mayor, offered a knowing look. He said that through all of Great Lakes scheduling problems Riverton still had two reliable air ambulance services that reported no problem finding pilots.
“What’s the difference?” Baker asked rhetorically. “Great Lakes pays their guys about $20,000 a year.”
Great Lakes and Denver Air Connection did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
As the city fights to gain back local passengers it has launched a “Fly Riverton” campaign that includes a marketing push and even a fighter jet adorned with the campaign’s logo near the entrance of the airport.
Butterfield said that the arrival of Denver Air has led to increase in passengers flying out of Riverton each month so far. In September, 507 people flew out or Riverton airport, up from 295 in July. He added that data on future bookings also show an upward trajectory.
The increased bookings have even helped Great Lakes, which increased its service to three daily flights in July after initially announcing plans to cut back to a single afternoon flight. While airport data shows that Denver Air is attracting more business on a monthly basis, Great Lakes had also raised its passenger total over the course of the summer.
“The rising tide is raising all ships,” Butterfield said. “Anytime we can provide more options to our community, to the flying market, that’s a good thing.”