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Why air service is so crucial for small cities

As airlines cut small-plane services and consolidate bigger cities, some communities are suffering.

Santa Fe County Municipal Airport is one of many that have lost commercial air service before.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

In the past four years, 32 communities have lost air service, according to the Regional Airline Association. Look at the past 35 years and that number jumps to 91. For smaller towns and cities, the availability of air travel is always on the chopping block as airlines cut small-plane service and consolidate in major cities.

This means not only that residents are forced to spend more and travel long distances just to make it to an airport, but also that the local economy suffers, as its businesses aren’t easily accessible to the rest of the country. “It’s a nonstarter for a business with any type of national or international presence to locate in a community without national air service,” says Faye Malarkey Black of the Regional Airline Association.

Airlines cutting routes is due to several factors: the high cost of operating a plane, the lack of passengers that small markets produce, and a pilot shortage. Due to the increased number of hours a commercial pilot is required to fly, the aging pilot workforce, and fewer pilots coming out of the military, pilots are a rare resource, which forces airlines to drop routes, often at the expense of small communities.

To remedy this issue, airlines are partnering with regional air carriers to restore flights to underserved areas. In Cheyenne, Wyoming, for instance, the Cheyenne Regional Air Focus Team struck a deal with SkyWest (subcontracted by American Airlines): Passengers can fly between Dallas and Cheyenne nonstop on a 50-passenger SkyWest jet, and for one year of service, the city would guarantee a minimum revenue of $2.3 million.

Last year, Columbia, Missouri, expanded its air service to Denver, guaranteeing United Airlines that its trips to Colorado would bring in at least $600,000 in revenue in one year. The city also waived the landing and rental fees at the airport, about $125,000, and spent $250,000 on marketing for United flights to and from Denver.

In order to ensure airlines won’t lose money on the deal, cities raise money beforehand, usually through a mix of government funding and private donations. In Cheyenne, the $2.3 million came from a mix of state subsidies, city-allocated funds, and private donations.

Commercial air service facilitates economic growth

Commercial air service is important to the economic growth and quality of life in rural or low-population towns. And when the airlines leave, companies sometimes follow. When equipment manufacturer Caterpillar Inc. moved its headquarters from Peoria, Illinois, to Chicago, CEO Jim Umpleby said one reason for the move “better access to flights,” citing that two-thirds of Caterpillar’s business was from outside the US. In 2013, the fast-food chain Krystal Co. moved from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to the Atlanta suburbs; company executives said access to a larger airport that provided service to all its markets was a key factor in the decision. Same goes for Albemarle Corp., which moved from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2017, bringing with it 120 high-paying jobs.

Darren Rudloff of the Visit Cheyenne tourism office, said that many major industries and businesses in Wyoming need the convenience of daily flights: “the energy industry with linkages to major companies in Texas, the tourism industry with Cheyenne being a gateway to Wyoming’s National Parks, and the military with links to air force bases throughout the nation.” This is why, he says, Cheyenne residents voted to build a new $18.5 million airport several years ago — they knew the economic value of attracting commercial airlines.

For some cities, like Cheyenne, state subsidies and private donations are enough to bring back commercial airlines, but other cities need more help. That’s why the Essential Air Service Program was put in place. The EAS, part of the Department of Transportation, was formed in 1978 in response to the Airline Deregulation Act, which gave airlines almost complete autonomy of where they did and didn’t have to fly. As the name implies, the federal law deregulated the airline industry, and the US government relinquished control of fares and routes to the free market.

The Essential Air Service Program seeks to guarantee that small communities are served with at least minimal airfare service. To accomplish this, it subsidizes small community airports, whether that means putting money toward ticket sales, landing fees, or marketing. As of 2017, the EAS budget was $288 million, all of which comes from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund and overflight fees (the cost an airline pays for flying over the US). There are 173 EAS communities in the US, mostly in Alaska but also in the Midwest, California, Wyoming, and Washington. Columbia Regional Airport was on Essential Air Service subsidies until 2008, but now its air service is funded by a mix of state and local funds, along with private donations.

When proposed in 1978, EAS was supposed to be a temporary measure. But small cities have continued to suffer from lack of air service, and many, including Black, now see the program as a necessity. “The increasing trend of urbanization of gross domestic product is not a good thing in this country, and as small communities lose their air service, that trend is only going to worsen,” Black says.

Not everyone thinks the Essential Air Service Program is so essential

But not everyone shares Black’s view. In 2007 the George W. Bush administration tried to decrease funding to $50 million, and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research institution, has proposed eliminating the program altogether.

David Ditch of the Heritage Foundation believes the cost of the program far outweighs the benefits, and says that because not everyone uses the program, not everyone should pay for it. “The cost is being borne [by] people across the country, overwhelmingly those who will never take advantage of the program,” he says.

Although money for the EAS Program doesn’t come directly from taxpayers, Ditch says that taxpayers shouldn’t even have to pay indirectly for EAS.

To him, the program is an expensive investment that offers a convenience, not a necessary form of transportation, and sometimes it’s allocated to cities that don’t need it. “One example we found is there are subsidies that go to an airport in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when there is the Harrisburg Airport literally 40 miles away,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense for taxpayers to spend millions of dollars to use Lancaster Airport because it’s marginally more efficient.”

From a business standpoint, he also doesn’t think the government should be “picking winners and losers” by paying for a business’s access to an airport.

When asked about a possible solution, he says building out roads for buses or other transit that easily links small communities to larger airport hubs would be a more fiscally responsible alternative. Alternatively, he says, the subsidies should be dealt with at the state level. “The federal government should not subsidize people living anywhere, which includes remote locations,” he says.

Black disagrees. Aside from the benefits to businesses, she says that feeling connected to global transportation is reason enough for communities to have air service. “It’s not just for leisure travel; it’s a matter of quality of life,” she says.

Once when Black was waiting at an airport gate, she struck up a conversation with a fellow flyer who said her town was having a problem attracting doctors to their community because of the lack of air service. “That’s a struggle of life for these communities,” she says. “It’s just an absolute imperative for these communities to have air service.”

Correction: A earlier version of this article misstated SkyWest and American Airlines’ relationship.

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