GOP Pushes Pork They Used to Rail Against in the Senate: Essential Air Service Coming Back

When Congress passed the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978 they put together the political coalition in part by assuaging concerns that small communities would lose their flights. The legislation included a 10 year transition period in which small community service could receive subsidies. That was the Essential Air Service Program, and it was supposed to last only through 1988.

Of course, the costs of a program in the hundreds of millions are dispersed among a broad population, but the benefits of the program are concentrated on the very few airports, airlines, and passengers who benefit from the largess. So the beneficiaries get very vocal and lobby aggressively to keep those subsidies. The program didn’t die in 1988. In fact financing grew substantially — from just $22 million in 1998 (10 years after it was supposed to sunset) to over $150 million today. And despite past efforts by Republicans, the Republican-controlled Senate is pushing forward the subsidies again.

There are routes being subsidized to the tune of a thousand dollars per passenger roundtrip, that see load factors in the single digits, and that while a convenience to those passengers don’t really qualify as ‘essential’.

The idea of course of the Essential Air Service program was to provide subsidies to rural airports to ensure they’re connected to the nation’s transportation system. Many of those airports are indeed remote, such as in Alaska. But in the mainland U.S. many are simple drives to larger unsubsidized airports. Many are in towns with Amtrak service. And few people actually take advantage of the flights.

  • Lancaster, Pennsylvania is about half an hour from Harrisburg
  • Visalia is 45 minutes from Fresno, and has Bakersfield to its south
  • Pueblo is under an hour from Colorado Springs
  • Muskegon County Airport is less than an hour from Grand Rapids
  • Owensboro-Daviess County, Kentucky is under an hour from Evansville, Indiana

Republicans have threatened to kill the Essential Air Service program in the past. But now that they control the Senate, it’s back. House Republicans haven’t yet signed on, but the measure gets an easier ride on the Senate side where South Dakota Senator John Thune chairs the Commerce Committee and is a member of the Appropriations Committee.

Given a national pilot shortage, however, federal funds probably shouldn’t be pushing service onto less useful routes because it meaningfully trades off with service on more useful routes — that benefit more people — leaving aside even alternative and much better uses for the money.

And make no mistake, as I noted discussing another small community air service subsidy program, $40,000 a year income households are being asked to subsidize $100,000 a year households. The average airline passenger income is well above above.

Need I add that if you’re concerned about the environmental impact of flying you’d probably be against subsidizing empty planes?

It’s been a decade since I first wrote about the program. The waste got plenty of attention in 2008. The FAA funding showdown of 2011 was supposed to at least kill the most egregious subsidies. It didn’t. They seem likely to continue.

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. You mean politicians are hypocrites? Stop the presses! I’ll eagerly await your next post pointing out Democrat hypocrisy.

  2. Lancaster, PA may be about a half hour from Harrisburg… but is that in a car or in a horse and buggy?

    Shouldn’t the Amish have a local airport that serves their flying needs?

    Think about the Amish who would have a tougher time flying around the world without that flight from Lancaster?

  3. With the “pilot shortage” aren’t these routes going to get significantly more expensive as well?

  4. As someone who pays a pretty penny for a tiny townhouse 3 or 4 miles from DCA, I resent the subsidies accorded those who live on acres upon acres in BFE receive to make air travel (which is nice, but not “essential” in the first instance) financially possible.

    Anyone who, like me, likes the highly rural lifestyle in Alaska or Wyoming needs to build the hassle of driving to Anchorage, Bozeman, Denver, Jackson Hole, or paying for chartered jets, into their determination of whether that lifestyle is viable without reaching into my pocket.

  5. @NicK of course! More expensive for the taxpayer!

    And of course the Republicans actually go do something, even if that something is “give ourselves taxpayer money” instead of “govern sensibly and rationally”

  6. Definitely a big airline – hub airport view that ignores rural populations. Irrespective of the examples many rural populations are isolated and completely out of the beltway spin. Historically since the Whigs through the development of the Republican Party and in time the Democrats a universal value was to pull the country together. The drive to airline concentration and their partners bigger concentrated airports ignores this value to the detriment of the United States.

  7. A simplification could be done that if there is no airport/Amtrak station within 1 hour drive ; a rural airport/ Amtrak station could be subsidized and created for any town with a population more than 1000. Let Amtrak also get some of the subsidies. All over the world trains are the most economic way of transport. its only in the US with its subsidy of Highways through federally funded highways (gas tax does not cover the cost) and federally subsidized airports/traffic control/military contracts(which crosssubsidize civilian aircraft design) that road and air turn out cheaper than rail.

  8. They only run their mouths about waste and inefficiency, when it’s a program with Democratic votes. It’s hot air for C-SPAN. When it’s their own pork barrel, get a forklift and keep it coming! Republican voters fortunately for them have the memory and attention span of a dementia patient.

  9. Excellent article. The logical solution, but politicians are not logical, is that no subsidies should go to an airport within 90 minutes of another airport with regular service. This isn’t horse and buggy time, and rural people are quite accustomed to driving a distance for sports events, to shop, and for social activities. Subsidized service should be limited to truly remote, isolated areas. But call it “Essential Air Service” and establish it in enough states, and the politicians of both parties will fall all over themselves to pour out the subsidies.

  10. As a “city slicker” with plenty of non-subsidized airline service, it’s easy for me to think this program is a ridiculous waste of money. But having spent a lot of time in a lot of remote communities, I can understand why rural interests consider it important. And it very well may be. That said, the article you linked to says the per passenger subsidy for the Montana flights is $500. I don’t think I’ve ever bought a domestic ticket in the USA with my own money for $500. That’s a crazy subsidy and, as you note, it’s mostly going to rich people. I’m not sure I agree that EAS should be cancelled (I’d want to study the issue some more), but it’s a no-brainer to think that it needs serious reform.

  11. OK. So why the gentleman from Billings shall pay:
    – Domestic Passenger Ticket Tax to fund CAT III ILS maintenance for metroplex hubs?
    – Domestic Flight Segment Tax to fund Nextgen whose beneficiary are primarily airlines in congested areas
    – September 11th Security Fee when no terrorist targeted Wyoming or any commuter aircraft in the US
    Let’s remove all that pork and stop the subsidies rural flyers have to pay which benefit the big airlines from the Acela Express corridor and the crowded airspace flyers .

  12. Eh none of this makes any sense. There’s Enterprise offices or similar all over the country.

    If you live in Amish land, one way yourself a car with a drop off at the airport.

    And frankly living near an airport that gets millions if not billions of local money to stay afloat and offers nothing but ridiculous rates, i’m prone to think that these places stay open just to keep certain protected political operatives employed for underhanded cash funneling.

    In other words, if you’re going to have an airport, the airport should at least offer service people can use. Otherwise shut it down. Or go ahead and stock it with Cessnas but stop acting like it’s part of the “commercial network”.

  13. @Minos

    Those fees add up to $10/ticket. The subsidies described in this article are 100x that. And even the small flights to remote areas use federally-funded ATC when landing and taking off from the hub airport.

  14. Capitalism is remarkably efficient at allocating resources and setting prices. That is not to say that capitalism functions perfectly with no need for government influence because there certainly are some important government roles in our economic system. However, cases like this disregard the most effective aspect of capitalism and create inefficiency that is paid for by many while aiding a only a narrow group of beneficiaries. Unfortunately, these crony-Ist deals are hard to kill once they take hold.

  15. I can’t believe this program is still around. If air travel is so important to these rural community citizens, they can move closer or drive.

  16. I live in a Northwestern Chicago suburb, 25 minutes to ORD in no traffic. In normal traffic, 45 minutes to one hour. Shouldn’t I also qualify for the subsidy.

  17. This program gets abused, no doubt. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Reform it. Don’t kill it.

  18. Lancaster is ridiculous. It’s just 5 miles away from an Amtrak station with continuous service to Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and multiple daily trains to New York with a stop at EWR. Lancaster is also only a 90 minute drive to PHL or BWI, and under 2.5 hours to EWR, IAD, or DCA.

    Ultimately though, if people are choosing to live that far from civilisation, the government shouldn’t be subsidising that choice.

  19. It’s a free will choice to live in a rural area. Subsidies kill an entrepreneurial opportunity for someone to figure out a solution. I hate all this special interest crap. Term limits and vote out all the idiots in DC currently. Excellent post content, but gee, again more GOP-bashing. So no Dems are voting for these subsidies? Why can’t the politics be left off this blog?

  20. How does maintaining the wasteful subsidy of EAS at almost $300M per year personify a free market system as identified by our political class? Given that the public already built the private airlines infrastructure and air traffic control system, if those airlines identified market opportunity serving these villages down the road from an active airport, they would compete there. Instead, Decatur, IL, just 43 miles down the road from Springfield, IL, continues receiving its subsidy of almost $3M per year.

    Yet, Amtrak is still denied its own trust fund, as enjoyed by the airlines; also, denied a regular, annual funding mechanism for planning and more efficient equipment purchases. Expansion of route frequencies and new routes for Amtrak has always been ‘a bridge too far.’ Securing funding for Amtrak from Congress as if, as Coach Ditka once said about those recalcitrant in paying in football, “they threw nickels around like manhole covers.”

    Before Amtrak, the railroads consistently invested in building and maintaining their own infrastructure and operated our passenger trains. However, these private firms could not compete with the federal subsidy to air for building its infrastructure and air traffic control system, at the same time the railroads were taxed by every jurisdiction for their depots, and every mile of right-of-way.

    What is the power of these lobbyists to inhibit Congress from seeing how it has created its own “Solyndra,” to pick winners and losers within the same mode of transport? Just as Congress now requires states and cities to pay real user fees for passenger rail services and track upgrading (ex-Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico), when does the same formula apply to these village airports?

    Indeed, as private investors are moving forward on a high-speed rail line between Dallas-Houston, as well as a higher speed passenger line from Orlando-Miami, despite the anti position ferment induced by airline lobbyists, why does Congress persists with the needless EAS subsidies, when it continues to refuse public investment in high-speed rail to relieve the airports and airlines of the short haul traffic long ago moved onto these trains in Europe?

  21. EAS is a joke. There are 2 airports in North Dakota that receive huge subsidies. Where I live they receive 3.2 million and the other city receives 3.1 million. Both cities are only 90 miles from 2 major airport hubs and 110 miles from 2 other major airport hubs. We could bus these people for a much lesser fee and they would have more options at the major hubs. I figured out that each passenger is subsidized about 600.00 dollars for the amount of boardings we have. Our congress should be ashamed of themselves for wasting our money.

  22. Thanks Hobbess for showing me you are a right wing nut job. Forewarned is Forearmed!

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