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.