Strange Story: How One Small Airport Kicked Out Jets In Favor Of 9-Seat Turboprops

Pueblo, Colorado is losing jet service to Denver, and seeing it replaced with 9-seat turboprops. And the federal government is paying $3 million a year for the privilege.

The irony is that the existing subsidized airline, SkyWest, was offering to:

  • Take out nearly half the seats from their jets, providing a better flying experience
  • Operate two flights a day

Southern Airways will operate 24 roundtrips a week (nearly three and a half per day) using 9-seat Beechcraft King Air 200 props. Pueblo’s Mayor and the Chair of its Department of Aviation favored the Southern proposal, applauding them for offering two propeller service and not just one.

Why on earth would Pueblo turn its back on the current airline, which offers United Express jet service and which was offering to double it – in favor of 9-seat turboprops?

The pilot shortage has affected regional airlines the most, because their pilots go to the big airlines that pay more. Regional carrier SkyWest created a subsidiary to run public charter flights under FAA Part 135 rules. This lets then fly planes with no more than 30 seats which have a captain that meets the 1500 hour rule but allows a co-pilot with fewer hours.

The plan involved taking CRJ-200 50-seat regional jets and taking out seats. That’s actually great for passengers. And SkyWest planned to do this on poor-performing routes, where there weren’t that many passengers to begin with, like subsidized Essential Air Service routes.

Naturally, the major pilots union – ALPA – blew a gasket. They fought hard for the 1500 hour rule. It limits entry into the profession, making it more expensive and take longer to become a pilot. Pilot shortages are great for pilot wages and leverage in negotiations. Pueblo, Colorado’s Mayor sided with ALPA.

Flying small regional jets with just 30 seats is what JSX does but they also fly from private terminals. Flying from Pueblo, Colorado isn’t that much more cumbersome than an FBO, even though it involves TSA rules for security.

The irony, of course, is that Southern’s use of 9-seat aircraft is that the 1500 hour rule applies to aircraft with 10 seats or more – Southern gets around the 1500 hour rule, too, with these Beechcraft planes! The Mayor gave statements that it’s unsafe to operate a CRJ-200 with a co-pilot that has fewer than 1500 hours (while the captain still had to meet that requirement) yet applauds 1500-hour rule exempt nine-seat service. Was Mayor Nick Gradisar really doing service for his city?

Meanwhile, why are federal taxpayers even spending $3 million a year to operate air service to Denver? The Pueblo airport is a 45 minute drive to the Colorado Springs airport. It’s a two-hour drive to Denver. And in Colorado that’s… not very much. In any case Landline bus service seems like it might be a better option than 9-seat turboprops.

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