Federal Aviation Bailout Is Making Bizarre Payments To Tiny Airports

It’s not just airlines – and airline contractors – who got a big piece of the federal CARES Act. U.S. airports also had $10 billion in grants set aside for them.

When the Small Business Administration was tasked with pushing hundreds of billions of dollars out the door in a matter of weeks with little oversight, it’s not at all surprising that the program became something of a mess. But the $10 billion the FAA was asked to send to airports became a mess, too.

Over 3200 different airports received money. This wasn’t just for major commercial hubs, but also for the smallest general aviation fields too. Here are the top 10 recipients:

Hartsfield – Jackson Atlanta International $338,535,265
Los Angeles International $323,636,269
Dallas-Fort Worth International $299,199,046
Chicago O’Hare International $294,441,928
Denver International $269,073,999
San Francisco International $254,780,449
Miami International $206,949,557
McCarran International $195,485,334
John F Kennedy International $193,389,105
Seattle-Tacoma International $192,133,300

Some of the general aviation airport grants were quite small, even as little as $30,000 and in a few cases just $1000. Small commercial airports like Yakutat, Alaska received just $1 million. Yuma, Arizona – which sees just American Eagle service and had fewer than 80,000 commercial passengers in 2018 – received $4.4 million. Fresno, Syracuse, and Rochester each received about $13 million.

Merced, California – which I do not think even gets commercial service anymore – received $17 million. But that’s less than the $18 million that Garden City, Kansas got. The East Wenatchee, Washington airport (airport code “EAT”) got $18 million as well.

There are a number of oddities in the funds disbursed to airports, but perhaps none quite so odd as Knox County Regional Airport (“RKD”) in Owls Head, Maine which received $17,925,850 which is “enough to cover operations and security for the next 25 years.”


Credit: Knox County Regional Airport

Knox County Regional Airport has 3 scheduled Cape Air Cessnas a day to Boston. It is also the home base of Penobscot Island Air, which flies Cessnas to 3 destinations in Maine’s Penobscot Bay.

The airport’s manager said he “hasn’t slept” since receiving the award, he was “quite surprised.”

Knox County will actually receive just over $2 million from the FAA in initial funding because of a cap that limits it to four years of operating expenses. The remainder of the $18 million can be used for allowable expenses, including construction, over the next four years, according to an FAA spokeswoman.

…Half the funding was based on the number of passenger boardings – those with more passengers received higher awards. …But the calculation model approved by the U.S. Senate also took into account debt and cash reserves. Twenty-five percent of the award was based on airport debt, and the other 25 percent was based on an airport’s ratio of debt to cash reserves.

Since this airport had no debt and had cash on hand, it received a windfall. And it’s not the only one.

Devils Lake, North Dakota received 50 times what they spend in a year. Merrill Field in Alaska got nine years of expenses. Johnstown, Pennsylavia’s airport which averaged about a dozen passengers a day before the pandemic got $5 million.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. As Alfred E. Neuman said, “What me worry?”

    It’s this pathetic attitude how ‘money just grows on trees’ that explains why the recently built F-35s for the Navy and Marines cannot consistently fly at supersonic speeds, as the stealth coating will heat up and wear off; why Littoral close to shore naval vessels cannot fulfill their basic function.

    In the end, whether it’s unbelievable stupidity in directing federal bailout funds, or, improperly building military hardware that fails far below the blueprints, it only screws the taxpayer.

    If the feds are so intent on sprinkling cash on barely used airports, why not use some common sense and invest into rail infrastructure to enhance velocity of freight and passenger trains that would operate in separate lanes not to interfere with the other. This would relieve the roads of heavy truck congestion; facilitate regional passenger rail to allow for day-trippers.

  2. It’s an interesting twist on a bailout, rewarding well run airports. Hope they can put the money to good use and serve their communities.

  3. Gary, Merced airport does have commercial service — Boutique Air. They fly to Sacramento and LAX. There’s even a tiny little Avis desk.

  4. Boutique Air serves Merced from Sacramento and LAX, using comfortable Pilatus single-engines. In recent years they served Oakland instead of Sacramento, and they would happily sell a through ticket from OAK to LAX via MCE. It was a lovely way to make that trip. The terminal is rather a joke, and I can’t imagine the terminal building costing even $1M.

  5. @Gary. There will no doubt many strange results US Government is spending trillions on a voice vote. To be honest, I have not decided that this is a worse or better use of the US dollar printing press than others. Let’s hope that the airports at least save jobs with the money. Thank you for writing about this.

  6. Johhny: Troll.
    But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong, and the “let’s throw some good money after bad” socialist attitude has been played over and over again, so it’s a like a breath of fresh air to have the reverse approach.
    Also, RKD is quite a nice little airport.

  7. @Gary: I assume you mean Rochester, New York? For many in fly-over country, there is an entirely different Rochester, in Minnesota, that also has commercial air service. At least put the airport code in parens. RST = Rochester, MN; ROC = Rochester, NY

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