U.S. Taxpayers Fund Empty 'Airports to Nowhere'

Millions in stimulus funds get diverted to empty but expensive airports.

April 23, 2009, 2:14 PM

Sept. 18, 2009— -- The Greenbrier Valley Airport, the gateway to the ritzy Greenbrier resort where rooms start at $500 a night, is about to get more than $2 million in federal stimulus funds to spruce up the terminal building.

Only two commercial flights a day come in and out of the Lewisburg, W.Va., airport and, on average, each plane carries six passengers.

But U.S. tax dollars keep the airport in business. In addition to stimulus funds the airport received, the federal government subsidizes the commercial flights to the tune of $562 per passenger through the FAA's Essential Air Service program, which supports rural airports through a $175 million annual appropriation.

Indeed, dozens of small, U.S. airports depend on federal funds for their survival, prompting critics to complain that these "airports to nowhere" fly too few passengers to justify the subsidies.

But Greenbrier residents, for instance, insist that the money is well spent.

"The most important thing we can have is an easier way for the guests to get to the Greenbrier," said Lynn Swann, a spokeswoman for the Greenbrier resort. "That doesn't benefit just the Greenbrier, it benefits the entire region.

"We have 1,300 employees here," she said, "but numerous businesses in the area, whether they are tourist destinations, restaurants, other hotels or simply gas stations, [also] benefit from increased business at the Greenbrier."

Greenbrier Airport manager Jerry O'Sullivan agreed, saying federal subsidies for small airports like his are essential to local economies.

"In Washington terms, $175 million is really just a rounding error," O'Sullivan said. "And to cancel [the funds] would be too widespread pain for too little gain."

Dozens of Small Airports Snag Millions in Federal Funds

In Alaska, millions of federal dollars are going to tiny airports that make the Greenbrier look as busy as the O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.

ABC News visited Ouzinkie Airport, on a remote island near Kodiak, Alaska, which just hit the jackpot with $15 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 -- $100,000 for each of the town's 150 residents, even though there is another airport 30 minutes away.

"That's an awful lot of money for a little village," resident William Delgado said, laughing. "I don't know how it happened but it happened."

The stimulus money was awarded after the state applied to the Federal Aviation Administration for its piece of the stimulus pie. Four other tiny Alaska airports received money as well.

"Our rural citizens have the same needs as our urban citizens and we are not in a position to judge which are more important," said Christine Klein, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Transportation.

But critics call them "airports to nowhere." The most well-known is the John Murtha Airport in western Pennsylvania, a monument to powerful Democratic congressman John Murtha that has received about $200 million in federal money in the past 15 years.

The airport averages 20 passengers a day for its three commercial flights to Washington, D.C.

"It's a breeze to get through security, [there are] no crowds and it's right in your backyard," one passenger at the Murtha Airport told ABC News in April. "Definitely nicer than packing up early in the morning and traveling to Pittsburgh."

The federal government provides a subsidy for every flight into the Murtha Airport of about $100 dollars per passenger but, even with the subsidy, there are plenty of empty seats.

Still, that hasn't compelled lawmakers to curb funding for the facility. Out of the $787 billion stimulus funds awarded earlier this year, the Murtha airport picked up $800,000. And, on Thursday, the Senate rejected a measure that would have ended $1.4 million in annual subsidies for the airport.

Manager Says Murtha Airport Provides Jobs

On a recent visit to the airport, ABC News found it virtually deserted, with an empty restaurant, vacant lounges and quiet runways. An air traffic controller was twiddling his thumbs.

Thanks to Murtha, there is a Pennsylvania National Guard training facility located at the airport, but its personnel fly helicopters, not airplanes.

Murtha Airport manager Scott Voekler said the airport provides an important service to the economically devastated Johnstown, Pa., area.

"It is tremendously important because when you bring companies in, you bring jobs," Voekler said.

Murtha is the person to thank for the "modern, state-of-the-art airport," he said.

"All the major construction projects at the airport are directly from Mr. Murtha," Voekler said. "He has been a great sponsor of the airport and is trying to bring business in. ... You have to have infrastructure to bring businesses in."

Those who use the airport are grateful to have it.

"This is not an airport for nobody," Johnstown resident Gil Weakland said after arriving on a flight from Washington. "We have industries here, we have businesses here and we have people who travel out of here.

"John Murtha is a good man," Weakland added. "You got to look at earmarks for what they are. What would communities like this do without a conscientious congressman?"

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events