Rural Air Service Threatened, but Federal Supplements Help

Airline tickets to and from rural areas are becoming more expensive. Without a federal program that gives millions to airlines, they could be even worse.
by | March 2, 2011
 

The New York Times reports that the prices of airline tickets to and from rural airports are climbing as growing fuel costs and lower demand are making the those flights less economically viable.

Now community airports are increasingly offering perks, such as reduced landing fees and lower terminal rental rates, to keep airlines from abandoning rural airports altogether.

One type of aid that may help keep them around is the federal Essential Air Service Program, which provides about $200 million annually to help fund flights at airports in about 150 rural communities. The program provides funding to air carriers to supplement the cost of their flights to and from rural areas, since otherwise, their tickets may be prohibitively expensive and the airlines wouldn't operate in those places.

The law was created after the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, when leaders feared airlines would abandon low-traffic airports in favor of more lucrative markets. The idea is that the funding helps maintain air service in communities that would otherwise lose it altogether without the supplement.

But EAS critics point out that it frequently subsidizes airports that are just a few hours' drive from larger hubs. Sen. John McCain introduced an amendment last month that would have eliminated the subsidy.  Citing FAA data, McCain said 99.95 percent of Americans live within 120 miles of a large airport, suggesting it wouldn't be a major disruption if some rural airports did close.

McCain's amendment was defeated last month, likely saving the program for the immediate future. Some say Congress may be reluctant to ever kill EAS. “Given that there are 535 interested parties on Capitol Hill, I don’t see anyone stepping up and wanting to close an airport in some congressman’s district,” MIT research engineer William S. Swelbar told the Times .

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