It’s time to clip the wings of the Essential Air Service

It's time to clip the wings of the Essential Air Service
It's time to think of a new name for the Essential Air Service program.

The one thing it's not is essential. It's time for it to be permanently grounded.

Kingman, AZ, Pueblo, CO and even Brookings are among 100 cities around the country that receive federally subsidized airline service.

If it's a good day, the average number of passengers on each flight is about three.

Most of these flights on 19-seat prop planes have plenty of elbowroom – a rare luxury in this age of sardine-packed commercial jets.

Some major airlines have cut their fleets about 20 percent since 2001 and have abandoned unprofitable routes, meaning planes are flying fuller than at any time since World War II.

The Essential Air Service was put in place when the airline industry was deregulated in 1978. The idea was to help travelers in smaller cities adjust to the new competitive era of air travel.

The intention was for the service to go away after 10 years, but it was renewed for a second decade – and then made permanent.

The main reason that only two or three people board or exit one of these smaller planes when they land at a smaller city, like Brookings, is that people prefer getting their ticket to ride with a major airline at a larger airport.

Travelers across the nation adjusted very well after deregulation, and started driving the extra distance to busier regional airports nearby that offered increasingly cheap and plentiful jet service. That left the Essential Air Program with mostly empty planes, making them more costly to fly.

Add in higher maintenance and fuel costs, and spending has more than quadrupled since 1996, to $110 million.

To remain competitive with those higher costs, it stands to reason that an already wasteful program will demand even higher subsidies from all taxpayers.

Earlier this month, Sen. John Thune and Sen. Tim Johnson announced the Essential Air Service program in South Dakota will receive $110 million, an increase of $600,000 over last year.

Funding helps commercial air service to Huron, Brookings, Pierre and Watertown.

Air travel trends in Brookings help demonstrate why Essential Air Service is having a minimal impact on meeting this state's transportation needs.

In 2005, the average monthly passenger arrivals and departures at the Brookings Airport was 158.

That means, on average, five people boarded or disembarked those 19-seat planes daily in 2005 when they landed in Brookings.

It means that a vast majority of people from Brookings who needed to climb into an airplane in 2005 did so in Sioux Falls or some other larger airport that is home to regular air service.

To be fair to Brookings, the community has been utilizing its Essential Air Service at a greater rate. In 2006, average monthly passenger arrivals and departures there increased to 186.

And last year saw a big jump – Brookings managed to average 302 arrivals and departures per month on Essential Air Service flights in 2007.

When the U.S. Department of Transportation granted the most recent EAS funding last fall, it did so with the caveat that Brookings wouldn't get future grants if flights this year cost more than $200 in subsidies per passenger, per flight.

Despite increases in passenger numbers year after year, taxpayers on average are paying almost twice that – $398 per passenger.

In the meantime, Brookings residents who need to fly somewhere may simply drive 60 miles south on Interstate 29 to Sioux Falls.

"The Essential Air Service program is one of those well-meaning federal programs that often results in money wasted on trying to recreate those wonderful days of the 1950s," Mike Boyd, a consultant to airports, said in a recent note to clients. "Somebody needs to tell Congress that Ozzie and Harriet are gone."

The Vermillion Plain Talk editorials reflect the opinion of Plain Talk editor David Lias. You may contact him at

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