Subsidies for small airports keep flying, despite problems

Missouri's Joplin Regional Airport has so few passengers in its new, big terminal that frequent-flier George Chen says "a novice golf hack can smack 10 drives and not come close to hitting a single person."

Only three commercial airline flights take off from Joplin on weekdays. Passengers board a 19-seat turboprop plane for a 48-minute flight on Great Lakes Airlines to Kansas City International Airport. There, they can connect to bigger cities on bigger airlines.

Last month, 316 passengers — an average of less than four per flight — departed from Joplin. The U.S. taxpayer subsidized those flights, and 412 passengers on arriving flights, by $129 per passenger.

Joplin is one of 152 rural communities with airline flights subsidized by the federal government's Essential Air Service (EAS) program. This year, taxpayers will pay about $123 million through the program to airlines to fly about 1 million passengers in and out of the communities, including 45 in Alaska. Without the subsidies, the communities wouldn't have airline service, because the routes aren't profitable.

The program — like the much larger $15 billion federal Airport Improvement Program, which funds small airports with no scheduled flights — is also controversial. Critics say the number of people flying doesn't justify the expense. Even supporters say it's fraught with problems.

The Essential Air Service program requires that a community be at least 70 miles from a large or midsize hub airport to qualify for a subsidy. But it's "a nice idea that's degenerated into a political boondoggle," says aviation consultant Michael Boyd.

Frequent-flier Chen, a Chicago consultant who has flown into Joplin, agrees. He says air service to small cities is "a noble concept," but government execution "is simply laughable."

Former president George W. Bush tried to substantially reduce funding to it but was blocked by Congress. President Obama said in his budget proposal this year that the program was inefficiently designed and needs to be more cost-effective.

The Transportation Department, which administers the program, said on Sept. 14 that it agreed with a July Government Accountability Office report recommending the agency evaluate whether air taxis or ground transportation might be better than airline flights for rural communities in the contiguous 48 states. Yet, the program has support. It's popular with many in Congress who represent the communities, which say air service is vital to their economic health.

"Good air service is essential to attracting business, maintaining a tourist industry and promoting jobs," says airline consultant Barbara Beyer. "For every dollar spent on aviation, $70 to $200 goes to the community in terms of jobs, hotel rooms, restaurants" and other areas.

Despite his concerns, Obama recommended that funding for the program increase to $175 million — and Congress will likely oblige before it recesses for the year.

High fares among problems

Although the airline industry has changed, the subsidy program hasn't since it began in 1978, when airlines were deregulated and could decide on their own where to fly. The program was designed to make sure service to smaller communities wasn't abandoned.

Now, airlines operate widespread hub-and-spoke route systems, giving fliers more options. Many low-fare airlines provide inexpensive flights in many small cities within driving distance of rural communities.

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