Why A Revamp Of Small Community Air Service Is LONG Overdue

9 Feb

It’s that time of year here in Washington, D.C. — budget time.  This is the time of year when Congress begins jockeying for position to put in their favorite pet projects into the fiscal year 2012 budget.  It’s also the time our legislature fulfills those promises to the folks back home to put the brakes on federal spending.

One of those many programs that always gets the spotlight this time of year is the Essential Air Service program.  EAS was created after the airline deregulation bill became law back in 1978 as a way to ensure that small communities would not lose their connection to the global aviation transportation system.  It was felt that in a post-deregulation world, these communities would lose service as the airlines focused on more profitable routes, so Congress would subsidize these routes.  You can see the original list of cities included in EAS here.


A Mesa Airlines Beech 1900 D, an aircraft used for EAS Photo by Benet J. Wilson

Throughout the years, the program has seen cities and subsidies cut, but there’s been no real changes to the program since it was implemented back in 1978.  I have had a unique view of the program: as a journalist who covered the regional airline industry for almost 10 years and as an employee of an airline that pursued EAS funding.


Looking at it from both sides, I’d say this program is long overdue for a makeover.  The program is broken and most people know it.  But whenever a call goes out to redo the program — or even cut it altogether — members of the House of Representatives and the Senate come out of the woodwork to keep the program in place, even though it makes no sense financially.  Take a look at all the EAS stories — and congressional representatives defending it — I found with a simple Google search just in the past week.

Back in July 2009, the Government Accountability Office stated the obvious in a report that looked at EAS.  “The EAS program has changed relatively little in 30 years, but current conditions raise concerns about whether the program can continue to operate as it has,” GAO wrote.

There are several problems.  One, people just aren’t using the service, because even with the subsidies, the flights can be too expensive.  Most people in EAS communities do what those without the service do — find other transportation to a larger airport with better service options.

I saw both sides of this coin up close and personal when I worked for the airline.  Our team was bidding on EAS service in Nebraska and we flew from Denver to Nebraska on the carrier that had the contract we wanted.  We were the only passengers on the flight. I asked the crew if this was normal, and they said it was pretty much the norm.  When we went to Alamogordo, N.M., to bid on the service, we flew into El Paso, rented a car and drove the 80 miles to the city.

Two, the number of airlines offering EAS has dropped drastically, from from 34 in 1987 to 10 in 2009, according to GAO.  Airline costs have risen and the fuel price spike of a few years ago made EAS flying unprofitable, so more dropped out of the program.

Three, the airlines face reliability and destination issues.  Regularly scheduled services usually take priority over EAS flights.  And the EAS flights don’t always go to the hub that travelers want most. Look at the service offered in Arizona by Great Lakes. Kingman flights go to Las Vegas; Page and Show Low flights go to Phoenix; and Prescott flights go to LA Ontario, then Denver.

Subsidies have steadily increased, from a steady $50 million a year in the 1990s to a budget request of $200 million in FY 2012.  I think 2011 should be the year that Congress swallows hard and takes a hard look at EAS to make it into the program originally envisioned — essential air service — back in 1978.




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10 Responses to “Why A Revamp Of Small Community Air Service Is LONG Overdue”

  1. Rob Riggen February 9, 2011 at 8:39 am #

    Great topic! We had an airport close last year here in VT (K5B1). The small community it served voted to sell the land to a firm that wanted to stage logs in the field as part of a wood chipping operation.

    My letter to the editor of the local newspaper warned that an airport can be easily closed but we’ll never get a new one. I know that community lost an important asset with that decision.

    Often such small airports develop a perception problem. Communities see the costs of operations and extremely low utilization. They can be seen as playgrounds for the wealthy to come and use as they flit about with their expensive toys.

    If more of these airports provided essential services in a more conspicuous way it might prevent such closures. I can see how a revamp on EAS is just the ticket for protection against closure.

    • Aviation Queen February 9, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

      I’m sorry to hear about your airport closing. And you’re right-it’s really hard to get one back. I want to be clear-I’m not against small community air service. I just think we need a program that makes sense for everyone.


  1. Tweets that mention Why A Revamp Of Small Community Air Service Is LONG Overdue « Aviation Queen -- Topsy.com - February 9, 2011

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Benet Wilson, Flying With Fish. Flying With Fish said: RT @benetwilson: Why A Revamp Of Small Community Air Service Is LONG Overdue http://dlvr.it/G90KS (a good read) #travel #airline #flyertalk [...]

  2. I’m Giving Out The Link Love « Aviation Queen - February 11, 2011

    [...] the post I did Feb. 9 — Why A Revamp Of Small Community Air Service Is LONG Overdue? Well, it looks like Sen. Chuck [...]

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    [...] the Essential Air Service program, reports BusinessWeek.  You can read my thoughts on EAS here.  And Aviation Daily Editor Jennifer Michels weighs in on the issue here.  I don’t want to [...]

  4. Top Five Aviation Stories of Interest « Aviation Queen - May 23, 2011

    [...] Back in the day, I wrote about the regional aviation industry, which is why this admittedly geeky piece from good friend Bill Swelbar caught my eye.  I’ve been on many sides of the small community air service debate, writing about it for Commuter/Regional Airline News and Aviation Daily, protecting it during a stint at the Regional Airline Association and chasing after service working at Mesa Air Group. I don’t think this type of service should go away, but it is LONG overdue for a major overhaul.   I outline my thoughts on that here. [...]

  5. GUEST POST: Fixing The Essential Air Service Program « Aviation Queen - July 15, 2011

    [...] air service is an issue near and dear to my heart. You can check out my Feb. 9 post on the topic here.  Vallier has also consulted on EAS, which gives him a unique view on the ins and outs of the [...]

  6. Delta’s Small Community Air Service Cuts – Justified? « Aviation Queen - July 22, 2011

    [...] Talk about timing! The same day that guest blogger Nate Vallier wrote about the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, Delta Air Lines (my former employer) announced it was cutting service to 24 small communities (see this story in the New York Times).  And you all know about my feelings on EAS, which I posted about here. [...]

  7. Top Aviation Stories Of The Week « Aviation Queen - August 12, 2011

    [...] Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) is chairman of the House Transportation Committee and loves to shoot out sound bites about parts of the air transportation system that catches his attention.  This week he targeted the Essential Air Service (EAS) program in the Sunshine News, saying he wants to shut the program down.  But those are fighting words to rural lawmakers, including Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce committee.  I covered my feelings on EAS in a Feb. 9 post. [...]

  8. Life, Liberty And The Pursuit Of … Air Service? « Aviation Queen - May 14, 2012

    [...] to communities for their Essential Air Service contracts (read about my thoughts on that program here). It was always interesting to meet with city officials, because they would make these outrageous [...]

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