Busted Airlines #5: Great Lakes Airlines

Theoretically, this series is about Airlines That Went Bust Since 2017.

In reality, it's about Montenegrin banana importers, Turkish truck drivers, false claims about negotiating with Somali pirates(!), Ibiza techno club collabs, the Indian Mafia, and the urgent government rescue of 110,000 sunburned Brits On Tour.

(all of this madness is stuff we stumbled across while updating our tool that tells you carry-on luggage restrictions for every airline in the world).

If there's any airline – or any wild story – we missed, let us know.

Great Lakes Airlines

What if I told you there was an airline that served at least 164 airports in the U.S., including three just in Chicago, but most people have never heard of them?

Yeah. That's Great Lakes Airlines. These guys:

GLA is the little airline that could, even when they probably shouldn't.

Their approach appears to have been a steroid-jacked version of Allegiant's "We Fly Where Everyone Else Doesn't Bother" strategy.

Take their first ever scheduled service: Spencer, Iowa (pop. 11,325) to Des Moines, Iowa. Respect on that. No doubt.

But it feels like the early success went to their heads juuuuust a little.

Spencer to Des Moines

Here's an incomplete list of "lucrative" GLA destinations throughout history:

  • Alpena, Michigan (pop. 10,483)
  • Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan (pop. 13,337)
  • Laramie, Wyoming (pop. 32,711)
  • Alamosa, Colorado (pop. 9,806)
  • Scottsbluff, Nebraska (pop. 14,436)
  • Ponca City, Oklahoma (pop. 24,424)
  • Garden City, Kansas (pop. 28,151)
  • Liberal, Kansas (pop. 19,825)
  • Sierra Vista, Arizona (pop. 45,308 - the 27th largest city in Arizona!)
  • Pierre, South Dakota (pop. 14,091 - the 9th largest city in all of South Dakota! The second-least populous state capital in the US!)
  • Miles City, Montana (pop. 8,354)

On top of these destinations, GLA did operate out of larger cities, but – in what can only be described as a pretty major brain explosion – often chose to route flights between two large cities via a stopover in Farmington, New Mexico (pop. 46,624).


The Beginning of the End

In 2013, a U.S. government ruling requiring first officers to have a minimum of 1500 flight hours and restrictions on crew rest and duty times (which, not gonna lie, sound pretty legit from a passenger perspective) created major problems for Great Lakes as well as many other commuter airlines. The airline was also forced to pull ten seats out of most of its 19-seat Beech 1900D aircraft (for reasons that we could not uncover in our research).

But – and we're not being mean here – in 2013 alone Great Lakes Airlines ALSO received $58,299,575 in federal subsidies for Essential Air Services provided to rural airports. If you're a regional airline stacking $58M yearly in government subsidies and still can't make it work because your first officers need to be experienced and your crew need to rest...


Man googling how to run an airline

After a few years of struggle, on March 26 2018 Great Lakes Airlines announced operations would be suspended, effective at midnight. Despite ending operations, the company technically didn't file for bankruptcy and certain segments of the company continued to operate.

But if our sources all refer to Great Lakes Airlines in the past tense? Well, that's a sure sign they're well and truly BUSTED.

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