Those of you who used to read me over on BNET know that I used to spend a solid week each year looking at my favorite Small Community Air Service Development Program (SCASDP) proposals. Since I’m no longer writing for BNET, I spent a lot less time reviewing the program this year, and that makes me sad. I have fun with this. And yes, this year I’m late. The awards already came out, but that won’t stop me from talking about them.
By “favorite,” I don’t mean I look at those proposals that are great. I’m talking about those that seem outrageously misguided to me. The point of the program is a good one. Unlike Essential Air Service which just continuously plows money into small city routes, SCASDP is a short term funding plan that requires serious justification. The money should be used for helping to jumpstart new service through revenue guarantees, marketing, etc. There are a few uses but the point is the same. Money is meant to help get a project on its feet, but it won’t be there forever.
There have been successes. SCASDP has been responsible for successful long-running routes from Akron/Canton and Santa Rosa, for example. These are routes that airlines might not have tried on their own, but with the financial backing initially, they found them to be winners. And plenty of airports are trying to do just that right now. Many of these are small cities trying to get connected into a hub. Others are trying to get low cost service, often from Frontier this year it seems.
So which ones stood out for me? Here are 9 of the goofiest ones. I’m sad to say that three of these actually got awarded a grant. Oy vey.
- Albany, New York (WON) – Albany wants money to fund a flight to Houston, but that seems like a waste to me. It already has service from United and Southwest to several cities so it has access to their networks without having to go to Houston. Seems to me that the feds should have looked for proposals that would have had more of a network benefit than this, but the feds liked it and it got partial funding.
- Arcata/Eureka, California (LOST) – Like every other airport, Eureka complains of high fares on its sole flights on United to San Francisco and Sacramento. So what’s the solution? It wants nonstop flights to Denver, on United, the same airline that has high fares today. All this would do is hurt United’s existing service and make the market weaker overall. It won’t lower fares. Delta failed with flights to Salt Lake and Alaska/Horizon failed down to LA. This market just can’t support more service right now, it would seem.
- Bakersfield, California (LOST) – I don’t even get this. Bakersfield wants money to support 2 props a day up to Sacramento on Great Lakes. Without any connecting feed in Sacramento, this is bound to fail. There is a strange suggestion that there will be another 20 people connecting to Portland or Seattle. Really? I can’t see it – people going there would probably just take an existing airline that actually offers online connections.
- Bemidji, Minnesota (LOST) – I’ll give these guys points for creativity. They seem to think that people don’t fly out of Bemidji because they don’t know the airport has flights. So what will they do? Create a travel desk to book flights for people in Bemidji and those coming to town. This just isn’t going to do much since we all know that people coming to town aren’t going to call Bemidji to have flights booked. And locals should know the airport exists – they just drive because it’s cheaper or flights are more convenient from other airports.
- Casper, Wyoming (LOST) – Casper thinks that fares are too high on the short flight down to Denver on United. So what does it want? It wants Frontier to come in to lower fares. It says it asked United to lower fares to levels seen during the 1990s and early 2000s but was rebuffed. Apparently it forgot that fuel has spiked dramatically. So if Frontier comes in, what happens? It could push United to run away because lower fares will destroy the market. Then Casper would be pretty unhappy.
- Dubuque, Iowa (WON) – I love Dubuque because it has had some great, creative proposals in the past that didn’t win. So what happens? The city comes up with a not-so-good one and it wins. Go figure. Dubuque has been losing service and now it only has American Eagle flights to Chicago. What does it want? American flights to Dallas. This won’t help fares and it will likely weaken the Chicago flights by pulling people away. There’s limited additional benefit to Dubuque, but guess what? It’s going to get a shot to see if it works.
- Flagstaff, Arizona (WON) – Flagstaff is like many small cities in thinking that it’s perpetually underserved and it deserves better than what it gets. In this case, that’s turboprop flights to Phoenix. It also says fares are too high. In fact, it says the average fare is $58 one way higher than Phoenix. That doesn’t seem too unreasonable to me, but Flag thinks it knows that the premium should only be $30 to $35 one way. So Flagstaff wants a new airline to come in. It did have Alaska/Horizon to LA for a brief time but that failed. Why would some other service work? It won’t. But it won a grant, so we’ll probably see someone else come in soon.
- Mammoth Lakes, California (LOST) – Mammoth gets the brass balls award for having the gall to ask for this one. It has been subsidizing year-round flights, but it doesn’t have the money to continue. Without more money, the non-winter flights will probably go away, so it wants the feds to pump more money in. If the service doesn’t work now, then why would federal funds make it work? It wouldn’t.
- Marquette, Michigan (LOST) – Marquette is on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, meaning it’s basically Canada. So it wants service to the state capital, Lansing, because you can only get there via connections today. The problem is that a Marquette to Lansing flight will never have enough demand to support itself, ever. So why bother throwing money down a hole to subsidize it for a short time knowing it won’t work? There’s no good reason.
In the end, the feds selected 29 winners. That means more than 40 percent of applicants got a grant. Not too shabby. There were some winners that I liked to see. For example, I think Auburn/Lewiston, Maine had a good pitch for finally getting its first scheduled flights. I also think Latrobe, Pennsylvania has a good case for trying to further build its newly-acquired flights from Spirit. In fact, I’d say that this year, I probably liked what the DOT did more than in previous years, though clearly we still have some strong disagreements. That’s no surprise. Read the full list of grants here.
But congratulations to all the communities that won new service. Even if I’m skeptical in some cases, I hope that you can all make it work.