An aerial changing of the guard takes place Sunday in the skies over Eastern Montana.
Gulfstream International Airlines will launch its first Montana flights May 1 with a 2:30 p.m. flight from Havre to Lewistown and into the hub city of Billings.
Beginning May 8, Glasgow and Wolf Point will be added to the schedule. And on May 15, Gulfstream will complete service to seven cities by flying to Glendive, Miles City and Sidney.
Then the current carrier, Great Lakes Airlines, will end its brief Montana experience.
The Cheyenne, Wyo.-based Great Lakes took over two years ago from Big Sky Airlines of Billings, which sold its assets and shut down in 2008 after nearly three decades of flying around Eastern Montana.
"Everything is coordinated, so basically they exit as we start. We're really looking forward to it," said Mickey Bowman, Gulfstream's vice president for corporate development.
The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., airline is dedicating three 19-passenger Beechcraft B-1900D airplanes and one spare Beechcraft to Eastern Montana. The flights are subsidized through the federal Essential Air Service program, designed to provide commercial air service to small and rural airports.
Gulfstream initially planned on having some of its 20 pilots live in some smaller cities and hiring its own mechanics in Billings. However, since having its bid accepted three months ago, aviation fuel prices have risen 28 percent, forcing the airline to cut costs in other areas. Jet fuel costs in Billings last week ranged from $5.05 to $5.15 per gallon.
All of Gulfstream's pilots will now be based in Billings because that model saves money under the Federal Aviation Administration's flight rules and Gulfstream's union contracts, Bowman said.
Instead of hiring mechanics, the carrier has subcontracted the work to Edwards Jet Center, which hired many of the former Big Sky mechanics already familiar with the Beechcraft 1900s, Bowman said. The planes will be housed overnight at a nearby hanger, once home to Big Sky's fleet.
In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation accepted Gulfstream's $10,903,854 bid for the two-year contract. The bid that Great Lakes submitted was $200,000 less, but the Montana EAS Task Force was dissatisfied with its service and chose Gulfstream instead.
Gulfstream, which flies primarily in Florida, Ohio and the Bahamas, has to make a good impression in Montana, Bowman said.
"A lot of this is doing what you say you're going to do and showing up on time," he said. "Then people will start to use you."
Even as Gulfstream prepares to fly Montana skies, the Washington budget-cutting ax is swinging over the program.
The budget bill that cleared the U.S. Senate increases EAS funding from $185 million to $200 million per year.
But House members voted to eliminate all EAS funding by 2013, except for Alaska and Hawaii. The House version also cuts funding for any EAS flights carrying fewer than 10 passengers. That clause could be a problem for Montana if the language survives the final negotiations in Congress.
"If you go back and look at Montana's data, the only city that meets that requirement is Sidney," Bowman said.
The bulk of the $185 million EAS funding comes from the Aviation Trust Fund. The fund comes from user fees — a 7.5 percent federal excise tax charged on each airline ticket — so people who fly actually pay for the program, Bowman said.
Gulfstream's online ticket sales are being handled by Island Air of Hawaii, and Gulfstream will use Delta Air Line's counter at the Billings Logan International Airport.
The Florida airline also will outsource its local ticketing and baggage checks to Regional Elite, as Delta does, according to Kevin Ploehn, assistant director of aviation and transit .
"They will do what Delta does. The name is Delta, but there really are no Delta employees here," Ploehn said.
Great Lakes' contract to lease counter space at the airport for its Billings-Denver flight runs through June, but the airline could cancel at any time, even though it has booked reservations through August, he said.