No, Donald Trump Isn’t Going to End the Essential Air Service Program. Sad!

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Some people lack adequate transportation to get them to a bigger airport. That being said, it would be a lot cheaper to pay for a bus that ran a couple of times a day than an empty flight and an airport. I can’t speak for Alaska which has its own challenges and there are some airports in very rural areas which it may make sense to keep. But if you’re within an hour or two of another airport, then run a bus and be done with it. Passengers will end up in a larger city with more air choices than the smaller airport provided anyway.

  2. Your post focuses extensively on the lower 48, where I agree that EAS spending in many cases is a boondoggle, while glossing over Alaska. In many situations EAS subsidies really are “essential” in Alaska, and provide a reliable connection to remote communities. Demand for these services is indeed bursty, but eliminating it could have a massive impact on Alaskans, even if it would only force a few Hoosiers and Texans to drive a bit further for their flights. Certainly there’s a lot of fat to cut off, but I fear some critical meat will go in the process.

  3. No. You choose to live in a remote area, that’s on you. Taxpayers in general duty to subsidize you.

  4. I agree with most everything Gary said here. It’s a collosal waste of taxpayer money. Even if less than $1 per person in taxes, imagine what that $1 could do for the issues we really DO want to fund??
    However, I do have a soft spot for the realities of the frontier of Alaska. Their realities are much different than ours, and I do see it critical to their communities. (Note: I have never even been to Alaska at all.)
    I’m a big proponent of school choice too, but the realities of children’s education (and the jobs teachers have in those communities) really don’t work for kids staying home every day and going to class online in Alaska.
    There has to be some way we can support small communities like that without wasting collosal taxpayer dollars.

  5. Nobody put a gun to their head and forced them to move to Alaska. Maybe we should give each Alaskan thousands of dollars and ask them then if they want to contribute those thousands to air flights.

    Oh wait Alaskans already do get cash payouts….

  6. How did people get around before EAS? Before planes?

    I’m in an EAS town and drive 2 hours for direct flights and schedules that don’t have me spending an entire day on travel. I try, I really do. But arguing convenience goes both ways.

  7. Agree 100%, Wilma! And Alaskans can afford to pay for their own flights on schedules that the free market sets. As someone else mentioned, they already get several thousands bucks a year per resident from oil revenues just for living in Alaska!

  8. The State of Alaska could fund necessary air routes with oil money. This program, like so many others, needs go be killed.

  9. It looks like Visalia doesn’t have commercial air service currently. Probably because it’s not feasible even with subsidies! I remember pricing it a few years ago (to LAX), and it wasn’t worth it.

    Although the service wasn’t provided by a big legacy airline, but by a small company (Great Lakes Aviation) that seems to specialize in essential air service. They had an interline agreement with some of the big carriers though.

  10. If the airlines elect not to provide service, why would the Feds intervene in the marketplace? As Greyhound made business decisions to withdraw from serving the towns en route to cities, does that mean the Feds should subsidize those schedules no longer desired in the market?

    EAS was supposed to be only temporary to provide a transition into the deregulation of airlines. Only in Washington could it grow to a $350 Million subsidy in 40 years.

    Egregious examples such as Decatur,IL need to be stopped now.

  11. Visalia actually would have forfeited a portion of their subsidy by continuing commercial flights. So they are gone for at least a couple years til that subsidy runs out.

  12. Ironically enough, most of the communities receiving the Essential Air Service benefit are in Republican districts and their voters supported Trump. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

    In addition to air service, the budget suggest massive cuts to rail travel as well. A double whammy to some of these towns.

    The community of Wolf Point, MT is an Essential Air Service Community AND a stop on Amtrak’s Empire Builder…. a money loser. They are facing cuts to rail and air service.

  13. “No. You choose to live in a remote area, that’s on you. Taxpayers in general duty to subsidize you.”

    “Nobody put a gun to their head and forced them to move to Alaska.”

    Hmmm….some of the communities served by Essential Air Service are on Indian Reservations. Maybe those folks need to be relocated?

  14. Correction…Visalia chose to pursue the CFPP subsidy which potentially provides more money (3.7 mil over 2years) for airport improvements but they must forego EAS.

  15. Can’t compare this program with the financing and other assistance the M3 airlines get from their governments. The US subsidies are domestic only, similar to how the US postal system works: providing every citizen with access to affordable access to the mail. So to with access to air travel. And let’s look at the history of civil aviation in the US — and just about every other country in the “west” — where it was postal routes that paved the way to passenger travel. Airlines could only survive by getting contracts to fly mail before various US cities and this formed the basis of every US airline (and their predecessor merger partner) operating today. As mail contracts became more stable, larger planes could be used and these could accommodate passengers. But it is unlikely this program will die as noted, because just about every representative and senator (yes, even more so Republicans as they represent more of the states where these grants go) has a stake in keeping it alive.

  16. This is all a bit like the Post Office. The government has long subsidized rural post offices and rural delivery routes. I think most of us would say it’s a good thing.

    Providing air service to remote towns (in places like Alaska) also seems like a reasonable idea to me. It’s the implementation that’s the problem. Any airport that’s within a 3-hour drive of a regular airport with regularly scheduled air service needs to be cut from the program. It’s a waste of money and would probably never provide the most convenient air service for the affected residents. The remaining routes have to take people to where they want to go, which would likely be access to the major hubs that can get them to their destinations.

    None of this is rocket science. It just needs political will.

  17. Subsidizing rural USPS is NOT a good thing and I lived the last ten years in an area so rural, the population of the square mile I lived on was 70% my family in my household!

    The USPS does an incredibly poor job compared to UPS and FedEx. And both of them deliver to me without subsidies. And paper mail is just plain a bad idea these days. Most of what I get goes in trash.

  18. @DavidB “the US subsidies are domestic only” doesn’t even make sense, money is fungible and goes to the bottom line regardless of route, and of course the claim isn’t true (Cf. offloading billions in pensions on the federal government in bankruptcy while retaining tax loss carry forwards, Fly America Act, UA/DL ‘beyond rights’ at Tokyo Narita as part of the spoils of world war 2).

  19. @Hans — The idea, of course, was that every American could receive mail. In the digital age, mail is obviously less important these days, but I don’t think we’re quite ready to cut off rural mail because it’s a (bigger) money loser.

    That’s the idea of EAS, too. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. It’s the execution that’s the problem.

  20. @iahphx: Execution is the problem precisely because of the structure: handouts from the government. Execution will always be a problem under those circumstances because you’ve removed the automatic self-regulating factor of self-interest and weighing cost/benefit.

  21. When my daughter was hospitalized in Billings after emergency surgery, I was very glad to be able to fly back to Glasgow five days later to pack for a longer stay in Billings. The plane was full and the roads (a 5 hour drive) were receiving freezing rain. The return flight was also full. There is no bus nor train connecting these two communities. Essential air is exactly that for those of us in eastern Montana–essential.

  22. If it’s essential, Jan, then you can pay for it. No one forced you to live in the middle of Montana. And I say that as someone that lives in the middle of Kansas.

  23. I live in northern Maine and losing EAS would kill the few million square miles up here. It is literally the only airport (PQI) within a 4 hour drive of the nearest other airport.

    That said, since this area voted for Trump, the subsidy should be done away with as it will ruin and destroy the economy of northern Maine. Hence forward, you will have to drive hours to get up to this rural shithole. The remaining few large companies that still have bastions of will, will just fucking move.

    Maybe next time people will vote in their own self interest. Sure, a pipe dream. But elections have consequences and the people around here are absolutely screwed by the guy they voted for and it is hilarious.

  24. The EAS program is broken and gross. I flew to Sidney Montana to support my oilfield clients. I paid $100 round trip out of my pocket while the taxpayers kicked in $800. Yet, there is an airport flying jets in Williston only 40 minutes away by car. I was perfectly willing able to pay the full market fare to fly to fly into/out of Williston, but why would I when I get 40 miles away and a bunch of rubes (i.e. taxpayers) are gonna give me $800 to drive 40 miles!?!? One EAS carrier even markets themselves as “the Cadillac” of air carriers under a slogan of “fly private for the price of public”. This outfit flys thousands of people from nowhere to nowhere and the tax payer sends ‘the company a $900 check for each and every passenger. So broken. Yeah, ok, I get it: it’s remote in Alaska, Montana, the Dakotas. etc., etc, , if it’ important to you, then you can fund it. It’s a state an local spending priority. No way should the EAS be allowed to continue.

  25. I live in an EAS town and most of the comments are valid. According to the local newspaper there must be 10+ “emplanements” per service day to qualify. The local community doesn’t hit 12, there’s a city [POPPULATION: 400k+] 100 miles south and there are three flights every week day on aircraft that seat ten people per flight-tickets to those cities are $70 one way. A person can’t drive to the 400k city and fly to those destinations for $70-it’s a total gimme where I live.

  26. So many misconceptions about bush Alaska. The vast majority of the people there didn’t choose to live there, they were born there into some of the poorest families in the country. These families literally hunt for their food because they can’t afford to buy it.

    Hopping in the car to move to better opportunitties isn’t an option because there are no roads. Not that there is much opportunity. Due to a poor education system and generational mistrust of the education system (feds used to essentislly kidnap Native kids and ship them to other states for education) only about 1 in 4 graduate high school.

    Finally, that “thousands” of dollars is mostly mythical. It was seldom much over a thousand dollars in most years and since the state is funded about 90+% on oil revenues, the state budget is in the toilet so they have begun raiding the payout fund to support the government. Not that that really matters for your argument because of the cost of subsidized air travel. I work in healthcare and there are almost no doctors or midlevel health care providers in the villages. Almost any illness worse than a simple infection or injury more severe than a sprain or relativeley shallow laceration must be sent to the regional hospital by air at around $300-$500 round trip. Anything that requires a specialist means another flight to either Anchorage or Seattle at about the same airfare. The vast majority of these flights are done on commercial flights. The thing is that via different treaties and court rulings the feds are obligated to provide healthcare to Natives so if EAS goes away, we will have to start sending out minor cases on air ambulences which are still paid for by federal taxes but typically begin at $10,000 one way. I guarantee the taxes on that will be far more than one dollar a year.

  27. I have never read so many comments about something appearently no one really knows much. Most, more than 2/3, of the subsidies are paid for by the fees the US charges foreign flag carriers to fly into or fly over the United States If you don’t know the facts you just don’t know.

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