Subsidies for small airports keep flying, despite problems

The drive from a rural community to a small-city airport may take less time, Boyd says, than a resident in a big city commuting to a local airport. He points to two communities with subsidized air service: Pueblo, Colo., which is 50 miles from the Colorado Springs airport, and Manistee, Mich., which is 59 miles from Traverse City, Mich., airport.

There are other concerns about the program:

•Fewer airlines participate. For various reasons, including high operating costs or lack of sufficient profit, only 10 airlines are in the program now compared with 34 in 1987, according to Transportation Department and GAO statistics.

•Number of flights. Airlines are required to provide a minimum of two daily round-trip flights, six days a week, to a hub airport. Though the recession has decreased the number of passengers, airlines can't reduce the number of flights.

•Aircraft requirements. Airlines are required to use planes with a minimum of 15 seats in flights to most communities. But aircraft manufacturers are no longer building the 19-seat planes used on most subsidized routes. They're also costly to refurbish and operate, and have too much capacity for the needs of some communities.

•Unattractive airfares. Fares for subsidized flights are 50% higher on average than for non-subsidized flights of similar distance, according to the GAO.

•Unreliable flights and unattractive schedules. Delays, cancellations and route and schedule changes are common for subsidized flights, the GAO found. There are fewer connecting flights than at larger airports, flight times are not as convenient, and flights aren't as frequent.

•A population shift from rural to urban areas. This is particularly true in the Midwest and may be partly responsible for a passenger decline in some communities with subsidized flights, the GAO says.

While the number of communities with subsidized flights has grown from 87 in June 2003 to 152 today, the number of passengers hasn't changed much.

The number of passengers fell from 1.1 million in 2007 to 960,000 last year. But the recession and service interruptions by airlines that stopped flying on some routes may account for the decrease, the GAO says.

The subsidized community with the fewest number of departing passengers is Alamogordo, N.M., which averages less than one a day on subsidized flights, according to Transportation Department statistics.

Many subsidized flights of New Mexico Airlines depart or arrive at Albuquerque with no passengers, says Parker Bradley, airport manager of Alamogordo-White Sands Regional Airport.

The government spends nearly $1 million annually to subsidize air service for Alamogordo, which has a population of about 35,000. It's a 31/2-hour drive to Albuquerque and less than two hours to El Paso, which has an international airport.

Bradley says subsidized flights benefit Alamogordo's community. Military personnel at nearby Holloman Air Force Base and medical personnel use them, he says, and they help attract business.

"For some businesses, it's the end of the conversation if you don't have scheduled service," Bradley says.

Airline consultant Beyer says it'd be "a disaster" for many communities — particularly isolated ones in the Midwest and West — if Congress heeded calls to eliminate the program.

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