The Trump Administration’s proposed budget eliminates the non-essential Essential Air Service program.
Created in the late 1970s as a temporary measure to soften the blow of deregulation, it’s a perfect example of the old axiom that there’s nothing as permanent in life as a temporary government program. The legislation included a ’10 year transition’ period in which small community service could receive subsidies. This was supposed to end in 1988.
- The program subsidizes flights to over 150 communities, a third of which are in Alaska
- Most of the planes fly largely empty, and the cost of the program per actual passenger can be over $900. Per passenger subsidies are greater than Amtrak.
- In many cases the airports receiving subsidies are drivable to other airports where subsidies aren’t needed to sustain air service
But wait, American, Delta, and United claim that only Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar fly uneconomic subsidized routes? #mindblown
Years ago I lived in Fresno, California — a mere 45 minutes away from Visalia which received subsidzed service. There are plenty of other airports receiving subsidies which are about the same distance from unsubsidized routes, for instance if you’re traveling out of Pueblo, Colorado you could just as easily drive to Colorado Springs to start your journey. Hot Springs, Arkansas is less than an hour from Little rock.
Decatur, Illinois is less than an hour from both Champaign and Springfield. It receives subsidized flights to St. Louis a mere 110 miles away by air. If passengers want to go to St. Louis they should drive. If passengers don’t want to fly out of Champaign or Springfield they should drive to St. Louis.
There are other subsidized routes where driving itself is more efficient than flying. My home town of Austin has a subsidized flight to Victoria, Texas — a mere 103 miles by air. Victoria also has a subsidized flight to Houston, 123 miles by air.
Ultimately it’s not even a question of whether it’s desirable to encourage air service to these communities, it’s a matter of at what cost and whether this is the highest priority use of funds. Does it make sense to tax middle class Americans to provide cheaper or more convenient flights to air travelers who are on the whole relatively wealthy? (Federal air service subsidies redistribute income from $43,000 households to six figure households.)
And don’t forget that there aren’t enough commercial pilots to go around, subsidizing these routes means less service for communities that could actually sustain flights on their own.
Need I add that if you’re concerned about the environmental impact of flying you’d probably be against subsidizing empty planes?
However there’s a reason this program lasts: concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. Members of Congress and constituents in districts receiving these subsidies care a great deal about them and are willing to exert muscle and treasure to keep them, while the public at large cares very little about the program. At less than $1 per person per year, there’s little incentive for the median American to learn about the program. As a result there’s modest pressure at best from constituents for elimination.
Indeed spending on the program has quintupled over the past 20 years. It’s grown even under a Republican-controlled Congress, even though they used to rail against the program as wasteful spending. Senator John Thune of South Dakota chairs the Senate Commerce and Transportation Committee. He favors pork for South Dakota.