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Air service returning to Eastern Montana
John Rabenberg of Wolf Point, the chairman of the Montana Essential Air Service (EAS) Task Force, urged Great Lakes Airlines officials to resume flights in Eastern Montana. "This is something we've been waiting for a long time," he said.

After 11 months of driving long miles across the vast plains of Eastern Montana, residents and visitors to Havre, Glasgow, Wolf Point and Glendive will be able to fly commercially again beginning Feb. 1.

Great Lakes Aviation of Cheyenne, Wyo., announced Wednesday that it would resume federally subsidized Essential Air Service flights seven days a week to connect the four far-flung cities with Billings.

On Sept. 3, Sidney and Lewistown got two daily Great Lakes flights to Denver, and air service from Miles City to Denver began Oct. 26.

For three decades, Big Sky Airlines flew passengers to and from seven Eastern Montana cities, until financial troubles forced the airline to stop flying March 8 and go out of business.

The shutdown was a hardship for many who depended on a connection to Billings.

The Frances Mahon Deaconess Hospital, a small medical center in Glasgow, had to charter planes to fly doctors from Billings to staff its emergency room on weekends. The hospital went from paying around $400 for the Big Sky round trip to as much as $1,700 for the charter.

And more drastic measures were being considered. The hospital had considered buying an airplane, said Chief Executive Randy Holom. "We're glad we don't have to do that."

After Big Sky announced it was shutting down, Great Lakes assumed its Essential Air Service contract. The federal program offers subsidies to serve routes to small cities that otherwise would be unprofitable.

Trouble in leasing or buying enough Beechcraft 1900 aircraft, however, along with the sharp escalation in the cost of aviation fuel last year, forced the delay.

When flights resume Feb. 1, all seven EAS cities in Eastern Montana will have air service again: three with two daily flights to Denver and four with a daily flight to Billings.

On the same day, Sidney, which sits in the oil-rich Williston basin, will get a third daily flight to Billings, in addition to its two Denver flights.

The current routes have been growing in popularity, said to Great Lakes founder and President Doug Voss. "To the best of my knowledge, all three are seeing increased traffic over historical numbers."

Glasgow, Glendive, Havre and Wolf Point could get a second daily flight this spring if Great Lakes can lease another airplane or two. And Helena might get service for the current legislative session.

"We understand the need and the desire for the Helena connection and we want to help with that," said Great Lakes Chief Executive Chuck Howell. "But, when it gets to the part of when can we do it, that depends on getting the aircraft."

Helena is not subsidized under the current EAS program, so airfares must cover the service provided.

The restored routes won't show up in other airline industry reservation systems until Saturday night or early Sunday, Voss said.

Fred Lark of Lewistown, a pilot, radio station owner and a member of the Montana Essential Air Service Task Force, said Great Lakes booked about five times the number of passengers in December on its Lewistown flights to Denver than Big Sky was booking to Billings. He said travelers from surrounding counties are also using the service.

"They can come down here and get a cheap ride, and they don't have to pay parking fees," Lark said.

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The Montana EAS contract awarded to Great Lakes expires at the end of January 2011 and is worth up to $8.5 million per year. The federal program, which has been underfunded, faces reauthorization by the new Congress. That will give critics a chance to resume arguments that the program is too expensive to subsidize routes with few, or sometimes no, passengers.

For more than a year, EAS Task Force Chairman John Rabenberg of Wolf Point has been hounding Great Lakes officials to continue air service to rural Montana.

"This is something we've been waiting for a long time," Rabenberg said.

Montana's two U.S. senators and lone representative all welcomed the news, saying they had worked hard to restore air service to Eastern Montana.

"Without good transportation - and that goes from highways, bridges and rail to air transportation - it makes getting out of the economic funk we're in that much more difficult," said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

Senior Sen. Max Baucus, also a Democrat, said EAS flights are essential to everyday life in Eastern Montana and he'll be working to make sure additional flights are added.

Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said there are no good alternatives for the rural cities.

"In many Eastern Montana towns, EAS is the only quick and convenient way to travel for work, vacation and medical care," Rehberg said.

Homeland Security equipment and personnel will be ready at the four small airports by Feb. 1. And former Big Sky employees are encouraged to apply for jobs with Great Lakes, Howell said.

Contact Jan Falstad at jfalstad@billingsgazette.com or 657-1306.

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