[Archive Home][Date Prev][Date Next][Index]
"Opinion: Government can't afford cost of flights to nowhere"
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Government can't afford cost of flights to nowhere
BY ERIC WIEFFERING
The Minneapolis (MN) Star Tribune
Thank you, Delta Air Lines.
Rarely are those words uttered about our quasi-hometown carrier, and they
certainly didn't spring to the lips of many Minnesotans after Delta said it
will likely discontinue air service to 24 small cities, including up to five
But instead of criticizing Delta for abandoning small towns, we should thank
the Atlanta-based carrier for highlighting the wasteful federal subsidies
that propped up much of that air service in the first place.
I don't want to give the impression that Delta is philosophically opposed to
subsidies. Quite the contrary; it's willing to continue serving some of the
small cities if the government coughs up even higher subsidy payments.
Federal lawmakers should resist the urge to do so and recognize the Delta
news as the final clearance they need to kill the costly Essential Air
Service (EAS) program.
As it stands, taxpayers are now paying Delta to lose money. The company said
it's losing about $14 million a year serving the 24 cities on its hit list,
despite receiving about $20 million in federal subsidies annually to serve
16 of those cities.
In Thief River Falls, the subsidy was worth about $492 for each of the 2,500
passengers arriving or departing on a Delta flight. Delta still lost money,
however, because, on average, only four of the 34 seats on each flight were
Congress created the EAS program in the late 1970s. The airline industry had
just been deregulated, and Washington wanted to keep airlines flying to some
small towns and midsize cities that might otherwise fall off their route
What began as a 10-year program with a total budget of $7 million has become
a $200 million entitlement program for about 150 mostly small and rural
communities. The size of the subsidy has quadrupled in just the last decade.
One carrier, Wyoming-based Great Lakes Aviation, gets almost $60 million a
year, or half its revenue, from EAS subsidies.
Politicians and chamber of commerce types say the payments are a lifeline to
the outside world, and they warn of all sorts of economic hardship if
scheduled passenger air service were to disappear. But other Minnesota
communities, including Mankato, Fergus Falls and Worthington, have lost
scheduled air service over the past two decades without shriveling up and
For Fairmont, the wounds from losing its EAS subsidy a decade ago proved
more psychic than economic. In fact, the city recently added a 10-stall
hangar to its airport to accommodate the growing number of corporate and
private jets that continue to use the facility.
"The reality is we lost scheduled passenger service because not enough
people were using it in the first place," said City Administrator Jim
Zarling. "The economic impact was minimal."
Underwriting basic air service may be necessary for some parts of Alaska, or
even in some remote areas of the Lower 48, where getting to another airport
may truly constitute an undue hardship. But many EAS cities are within a
reasonable driving distance of larger airports that don't receive federal
price supports. Thief River Falls is the same distance from Grand Forks,
N.D., as Monticello is from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Given the light passenger volumes in many EAS cities, it's likely that many
consumers are choosing to drive to bigger, more distant airports, where they
benefit from more choices and lower prices. A quick check on Delta's website
found these prices for a roundtrip ticket to Boston, departing next week:
$516 for travel originating from the Twin Cities; $871 for travel beginning
in Thief River Falls, and up to $1,100 for those boarding in Hibbing.
The EAS subsidies are scheduled to expire in 2013 unless extended by
Congress. Earlier this year, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced a measure
to kill EAS altogether. It lost, but now the Senate and House are
considering measures that would scale back the service. Surprisingly, one of
the co-sponsors of the House measure is GOP Rep. Chip Cravaack, whose
district includes two EAS airport cities, Hibbing and International Falls.
But even those measures, which would knock only 10 or so cities out of the
EAS program, don't go far enough. If we're serious about reducing the
deficit, then there's a phrase to describe the folly of pouring taxpayer
dollars into a money-losing business: Plain stupid.
Do you have an opinion about this story?
Share it with other readers in our CAA Discussion Forums
Fair Use Notice
This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of political, human rights, economic, democracy and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.
If you have any queries regarding this issue, please Email us at email@example.com