Flights from Nowhere

Why does a flight from Ely, Nevada, to Denver cost taxpayers $3,720?

As a resident of Illinois, I'd never had any particular desire to fly from McCook, Nebraska, to Denver. But lately, I've been looking for an opportunity. Turns out the federal government is willing to pay me a handsome fee to do it.

Oh, I wouldn't get the cash directly. But the Department of Transportation provides more than $2 million to subsidize that particular route, which works out to about $1,000 for every passenger. My fare, meanwhile, would be less than $150.

I could get an even bigger hand on the hop from Lewistown, Montana, to Billings—$1,343. But if I'm feeling the need for indulgence, there is nothing to beat the flight from Ely, Nevada, to Denver, for which Washington will kick in $3,720. For that sum, of course, it could buy me a perfectly functional used car.

These extravagances are part of the Essential Air Service initiative, which is part of the reason for the recent congressional impasse over a bill to keep the Federal Aviation Administration operating.

The House voted to trim $16 million from this $200 million program by eliminating service to 13 places—which, in an era of fiscal shortages, sounds reasonable enough. But the Senate balked and eventually passed the bill on the understanding that the administration could continue the service to those towns. The feeling of many senators is that it's essential to their survival.

Really? Among the towns that would lose funding is Athens, Georgia., the bustling site of the University of Georgia, which will not blow away if people have to drive or take the bus to Atlanta instead of flying those 82 miles. Another is Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which boasts a low unemployment rate and easy proximity to the Harrisburg airport, 28 miles away. 

But the program does have real value, as an illustration of the pathology of Washington policymaking. Essential Air Service was created in 1978 as a temporary measure to assure commercial flights to smaller towns after the deregulation of the airline industry. 

The program has lasted three times longer than its original 10-year limit, even as transportation options have improved. The number of small towns served by airlines actually rose after deregulation.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted in 2009 that it "loses potential passengers and fare revenue when low fares or more convenient air service schedules at nearby larger airports encourage passengers to bypass EAS service at their local airport." 

That's one reason the demand for these trips is modest. The Lewiston-to-Billings leg normally attracts two people a day. The average subsidized flight in 2008, said GAO, was only 37 percent full, compared to 80 percent on the typical commercial flight. 

The rationale for the program is hard to grasp, given that there are less insane options. Instead of laying out $679 for each passenger flying from Decatur, Illinois, to St. Louis, the federal government could spend $40 on a bus ticket.

Even some of the beneficiaries find it all a bit much. Mike Olson, executive director of the Central Nebraska Regional Airport in Grand Island, told the Omaha World-Herald, "It's a waste of fuel, a waste of a lot of taxpayer dollars to fly one or two people, or three people, at most a handful a day."
But the program survives because most states get some aid and every state has two senators, who usually hang on to every federal dollar as if it were a Super Bowl ticket.

Nor do politicians like to tell these communities the obvious facts of life. Small towns are ideal if you have an aversion to crime, congestion, noise, high rents, and scarce parking. But if good travel connections are your priority, maybe you should live elsewhere.

The Essential Air Service program benefits enormously from the fact that, on the galactic scale of the federal budget, it amounts to space debris. Cut off the 150 communities subsidized by the program, and Congress would hear plenty of squawking, and for what? To save $200 million, which is hardly enough to notice in an age of trillion-dollar deficits. 

That's the problem with reducing the federal budget. You can't cut the big stuff because it's too important. And you can't cut the small stuff because it's not worth the bother.

So as a rule, nothing shrinks and nothing disappears. In Washington, problems come and go, but solutions are forever.

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