Rural flight subsidies hit some turbulence

Many in Congress agree. In a statement in May supporting Obama's proposed increase in funding for subsidies, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said, "Small local airports are expensive to run but vital to the communities they serve."

A 'mixed bag' in Joplin

Many frequent fliers, including some who've flown subsidized flights, question the program.

Bob McBride, a corporate recruiter, lives in Omaha. Nebraska has seven cities with subsidized air service.

"While I live in a state that is one of the major beneficiaries of the EAS program, the staggering subsidies required to support this program seem unjustified," he says.

McBride says the western two-thirds of the state is rapidly losing population, and flights there sometimes operate with no passengers in one direction and one passenger in another. He says subsidies could be eliminated for Alliance and Chadron, which are 57 miles and 99 miles, respectively, from Scottsbluff, another city with subsidies.

Frequent-flier John Cline, of Poland, Ohio, says he has considered flying into Joplin and other cities with subsidized air service, but found no convenient flights and fares more expensive than those to cities within a two-hour drive.

Cline, a technical service manager in the steel industry, says he saved money on a business trip by flying into Tulsa, then driving to Joplin.

Joplin's airport manager, Steve Stockam, says fares offered by Great Lakes Airlines on subsidized flights to Kansas City are reasonable.

Unlike many small communities who welcome subsidized airline service, Stockam says the program has been a mixed bag for Joplin.

Scheduled flights benefit businesses in the Joplin area, but program rules restrict flights to one airline, and passenger volume has been low, Stockam says. Great Lakes was chosen by the government to provide Joplin service, but it is not affiliated with a major airline and doesn't have a nationally known brand name, he says.

Joplin's airport hopes to get out of the program by persuading two or three airlines to serve their airport, which opened a new 22,000-square-foot passenger terminal last year. The airport has handled more passengers in the past, and there's a big enough market today to support non-stop flights to Dallas, Chicago, Memphis and St. Louis, besides Kansas City, Stockam says.

Consultant Boyd, whose company has worked with Joplin to try to increase air service, says the program is "a double-edged sword" for the area and a waste of money in places such as Pueblo and Manistee. But he says there's no doubt the program is vital in providing air service in Presque Isle, Maine, and rural communities in western Kansas.

Politicians "don't have the guts to fix" the program, Boyd says, although "triage has to be performed."

"(The program) is now aimed at running airplanes into small cities, not providing air service access to the rest of the world," he says. "No business traveler from Shanghai is going to jet into Atlanta and then cross the airport to get on a single-engine airplane for that last leg to Augusta, or wherever."

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