How the Experts Think We Can Improve Small Community Air Service

The problem of declining small city service is far from being resolved, and I have a few posts lined up to address the issue. Recently, I wrote about a couple dozen small US cities that are at risk of losing their air service. Today, I’m looking more at the solutions. Specifically, the Department of Transportation (DOT) decided to put together a working group to tackle this. The result of that group’s study was published in May under the tantalizing title “Report of the Working Group On Improving Air Service to Small Communities.” The 40-page report was so thrilling it will undoubtedly be turned into a screenplay soon enough. But since they’re still in discussions about that (look for Bruce Willis to play the washed-out airport manager/bad guy-killer), I figured it would still be worth it for me to break this down.

But before we get into the document, who was in the group? The full list is on page 34 of the document, but it was an amalgamation of various stakeholders. You have small airport managers like those at College Station, Texas and Roanoke, Virginia. There were also larger airport representatives like someone from Pittsburgh since that’s where many small service flights originate. There were small airline representatives including the head of planning for Cape Air and the CEO of Southern Airways Express (a man I’ve interviewed for a future post) as well as large ones including someone from United. Throw in some government officials, a union rep, and consultants and you have a fairly-robust group to tackle this issue.

So what’d they come up with? Well, there were 21 suggestions, though most fall into two categories.

  1. Resolve the pilot shortage
  2. Bolster the Essential Air Service program

With that, let’s dive right in.

The Pilot Shortage
Much has been written about the looming shortage of pilots to fly commercial airplanes (including some by me). This paper, in fact, spends a fair bit of time going over the issue. You have everything from the recent rule requiring significantly more hours for pilots before being allowed in a commercial cockpit to the issue of mass-retirements coming up as large chunks of pilots hit the mandated retirement age of 65. I’m not going to get into the details myself here, but you can certainly read the paper for more. Instead, I’ll just leave this chart from a study done by the University of North Dakota.

In airline hierarchy, the pilots flying big airplanes long distances get paid the most. The ones in the trenches flying 8 short hops a day in grueling weather conditions get paid the least. So when there’s a pilot shortage, it’s the little guys that suffer first. We’ve seen many regional airlines have to cut back flying due to pilot issues. Some have tried to boost pay to attract more pilots, but that also has a negative impact on costs. Small cities find themselves squeezed out either way as some flying becomes impossible while what remains simply becomes more expensive.

The solution, you might expect, is that the government should back down on the increase in pilot hours. That’s the obvious thing that many have pointed to, but this paper takes a more nuanced approach. This study doesn’t suggest a blanket roll-back, but instead it looked at ways to soften it. For example, there’s a suggestion that the FAA allow pilots to get commercial jobs with fewer hours if they take “academic pathways” that ensure they’re getting more rigorous training. There’s also a suggestion that pilots be credited for additional hours if they go through airline or aircraft-specific training programs. The idea here is that with some types of training, pilots will be better-prepared earlier.

This will certainly help open the spigot earlier for some people, and it may encourage more people to start flying, but it’s not going to solve the problem alone. There still needs to be more people deciding to be pilots. One suggestion there is to increase funding for loans so that aspiring pilots can afford to eat (and not just ramen) while they train. Then defer loan payments until they get hired on with an airline and can actually repay it. I like plans like this since it’s just common sense. I don’t think it solves everything, but it seems likely to help.

Then there’s the Essential Air Service program. There is a ton wrong with it, and I’m not convinced it can be fixed. This group, however, seems to think it can be. To start, they argue that the program should be fully-funded on an ongoing basis. The more uncertainty in the program, the harder it is to get reliable operations. And then, by the way, if the operations aren’t reliable, then the locals should be able to step in and force DOT to review and take action if needed.

Here’s something that might seem counter-intuitive, but the group says DOT needs to really tighten up on the rules of the program If airports aren’t meeting the requirements, then the subsidy disappears. No more waivers should be allowed to drag the process out. Some cities should be cut.

And for some cities, maybe a traditional subsidy isn’t the right way to do it. The group likes the idea of expanding the Alternative EAS program to give more flexibility to communities so they can find the best way to connect to the rest of the world.

Those might have been the two biggest areas of focus, but there were other ideas. Some touched on fixing, funding, and growing the Small Community Air Service Development Program (SCASDP) while others went further afield. One of my favorites is the idea that the feds should put together tax incentives to encourage manufacturers to develop a new sub-50 seat aircraft. I’m not sure if the economics would make sense, but I still like the idea of trying to fan the flames of innovation to make small city service more viable.

You can read through the document to see everything if you’d like. Here’s that link again. Do I like these ideas? Sure. This can’t hurt. But do I think it’s going to solve all the problems? Nope. Not by a long shot. And so the search continues…. I will say, I liked what I was hearing out of Southern Air Express. I’ll hopefully have that post up in the near future.

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35 Comments on "How the Experts Think We Can Improve Small Community Air Service"

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Kilroy
Guest

The occasional snark and attitude like this (without being overbearing) is part of why I love to read this blog.

Now that you mention it, this whole topic appears to be just begging for an over-the-top, Airplane! style parody, even if just a 5-minute YouTube video.

> The 40-page report was so thrilling it will undoubtedly be turned into a screenplay soon enough. But since they’re still in discussions about that (look for Bruce Willis to play the washed-out airport manager/bad guy-killer), I figured it would still be worth it for me to break this down.

Danie
Member

Addressing the pilot shortage and changes to EAS program are decidedly in-the-box solutions. The recommendation on the development of new sub-50 pax aircraft is a bit more aspirational. But flying a bit under the radar, an upstart company named Zunum Aero is already developing electric-hybrid aircraft that they are aiming at smaller airports. The initial prototype will have 9-12 seats but they are aiming to introduce larger models. Upstarts in aerospace with lofty goals are a dime a dozen but this one is backed by Boeing’s venture capital unit and JetBlue

A
Guest
It’s interesting that you mention College Station and Roanoke. The former is less than a two hour drive from either IAH or AUS. I’ve personally been sitting at an airport bar in Houston next to someone who was griping that he could’ve driven to College Station faster due to his delayed flight. Roanoke is I guess a bit more isolated but again 2 hours down to Winston-Salem and if you got an extra hour you can be in RIC or RDU. My outside-the-box thinking is commercial travel shouldn’t be so lopsided to air travel alone. Both example cities could have… Read more »
Anonymous
Member
I believe you are quite correct. Airports and airlines do not support anything to do with rail, let alone high speed rail. That will require someone with the political acumen to promote that balance, and I don’t see anyone who can fill those shoes. Then you have airports 60 – 80 miles apart, with excellent highways between them, competing with each other. These too will require a little courage to bring to a reasonable resolution. While many of these problems have been successfully resolved in the Far East and in Europe those solutions are not without their faults either. Is… Read more »
Davey
Guest
This discussion poses a couple of issues with EAS. 1) The intersection of political and economic reality usually is messy. That’s not going to change. It’s easy to say we should eliminate EAS for everyplace except Alaska. It’s another thing to do it. If it’s your hometown and your hometown service you use twice a year that someone is proposing to cut, you call your Congressman, who sees it as a chance to bring home bacon. It’s a flying pig wrapped in a bow for constituents. Private airlines or other firms effectively see it as currying favor (see: Commander Jeff’s… Read more »
SubwayNut
Guest

As of two weeks ago – October 31 – Roanoke now has one Amtrak round-trip per day on an extended Northeast Regional to Washington, DC and New York.

Chris
Guest

Even regularly scheduled bus service would be sufficient and likely far cheaper than a highly subsidized EAS flight.

Davey
Guest
The Roanoke “high speed” is a state supported stub running off the Southern Crescent route from New York and Washington to Atlanta and New Orleans. The only “high-speed” element of that corridor is New York to Washington. South of Washington, the train operates on the N+S Mainline between Washington and New Orleans. The train is restricted to a maximum speed of 79 miles per hour and shares the route with dozens of freight trains. And, I doubt there is more than one train a day in each direction. There is no capacity on that route for more trains and the… Read more »
Kilroy
Guest
The point about small town / small city airports many miles apart competing with each other is a good one, even (perhaps especially) for non-EAS service. Let’s not forget that this competition is greatly enabled by the same low price of gas and high car ownership in the US that makes many EAS routes unprofitable without subsidies. When I attended college in Charlottesville a decade ago, I flew home on a flight out of Roanoke (on Independence Air or Allegiant, I want to say, else another ULCC) once instead of CHO (Charlottesville airport). The airfare savings was worth the tank… Read more »
NICK
Member

I was of the understanding that PSOs act as economic generator for a region. Studies had shown that business was more likely to set up in places that had regular air service regardless of the road network to it.

Ted
Guest

Free flight hours at UND!

LoL

Tim Dunn
Member
The US has large decided that transportation, regardless of the form, is increasingly the responsibility of the private sector; right or wrong, the US went down the path of private sector transportation with the interstate highway system and heavy reliance on interstate air travel which is supported by user fees and free from general subsidies. As for the pilot shortage, all of the efforts that you mentioned that will help small cities also help other sectors of aviation. Pilots will go where they can make the most money; the federal government is fighting to keep military aviation staffed as well.… Read more »
Davey
Guest

Private sector transportation has been the way in which the US system has worked since the inception of common carriers in the 1830s (railroads). Keep in mind that the only intercity public sector entity is Amtrak. And that’s only existed since 1971.

In keeping with our capitalist roots, we prefer to regulate and subsidize as opposed to a more direct government operation.

Eric Morris
Guest

And which of the transcontinental railroads was the best engineered and financially successful? The unsubsidized Great Northern.

Jim
Guest

Intercity roads are built by the government, and unlike some countries, almost every commercial airport in the US is owned and operated by the government.

Tim Dunn
Member

true… but a correct distinction is that airports are owned and operated by local or regional governments while the interstate highway system is maintained by states using large portions of federal money. The US interstate highway system is actually more federally controlled than the airport system and yet the solution that some want is for the feds to subsidize air service to small cities. Deregulation removed the federal government from nearly all economic decisions about the US domestic airline industry.

Davey
Guest
A final (?) thought on this discussion. In the United States, air and highway infrastructure is built and managed by government. The cost of private airports or privately financed and operated highways without government intervention (including eminent domain, low cost government sponsored financing etc) would be prohibitive. Apart from EAS and decisions on infrastructure, we generally do not subsidize air and highway transport. We regulate for safety and for various environmental and human resource issues. Intercity Rail is another story. Mr. Morris is correct about the Great Northern (a road for which my three generations of my family worked). For… Read more »
Eric Morris
Guest

My understanding is roughly half of roads are covered by general funds so are significantly subsidized.

Oliver
Guest

I think United Express shut down a number of routes and cities in the west when Skywest retired their Embraer Basilias a few years ago.

It seems that there isn’t enough demand for a modern version from airlines, especially when combined with the shortage of pilots. Is there any manufacturer in the US who would be interested in incentives to develop one?

Doug Swalen
Guest
If they really want to solve the pilot shortage problem, airlines, particularly the regionals, need to look in the mirror at their too itchy trigger finger training programs. The regionals hire in lots of prospective pilots but few make it all the way through training. Some just don’t have what it takes (bad skills, bad attitude, whatever) but many could make it if the carriers weren’t so quick to cut loose people at the first signs of trouble. They expect you to know your stuff and have it wired together to such a degree that they end up dumping a… Read more »
EricC
Guest
What the….??? What airline is doing that? Most airlines aren’t terminating one trainee in a hundred for piloting reasons. Quite the opposite these days: people who before would have been told to come back with more experience are instead being sent through training repeatedly until they pass. I can’t think of any airline, at any time, anywhere that fired “most”. In the worst training environment I’ve been in, where examiners handed out event failures like candy to keep people humble and scared, almost no one ever got fired, and before they did they had *lots* of extra training with a… Read more »
Doug Swalen
Guest

All I’ll say is that’s not what I have seen happen to friends of mine in the past two years. Your mileage may vary…

EricC
Guest
The future of the industry will be heavily shaped by who is providing the money for flight training and under what terms. The 1500 hour rule strains the self-funding model beyond its breaking point. Perhaps US airlines will follow their European counterparts in training most pilots from scratch. If doing so puts downward pressure on wages it’d pay for itself quite easily. The cost of full training is, very approximately, about the same as 1 year of top end captain pay. One thing not often mentioned is that general aviation has a relatively high fatality rate, and the number of… Read more »
Uncle Tom
Guest

During World War II, there were literally hundreds of training accidents/incidents every MONTH on US airfields nationally. There were over 5,000 killed in these “incidents” during the four years of the war. Not combat, training deaths. I studied the entire data base looking for my uncle’s incident, he crashed a B-25 in training. He had crew killed, he had a rod in his leg for life.

AW
Guest

So have any cities taken advantage of the Alternate EAS program? Have they been successful? What tools have they used?

It seems like this would be a good way to get quality, frequent bus service to small cities. This could be much more valuable to the population as a whole, though not to the handful of more influential people (businesses, etc.) who desire the flights.

jaybru
Member
THANK YOU very much for letting me know there is a group and a report like this that exists. Were you not asked to serve on this working group? You surely deserve to be on it! To me this should be called a working group on “Ensuring Availability of Air Service to Small Communities.” It should not be based on the EAS or the SCASD. We are no longer in a 1978 world reflecting where and why people lived as they did then or why airlines did or didn’t serve a city then. And, don’t try to use this group/study… Read more »
Jim
Guest

The best way to fix this problem would be to increase the gas tax to $5 a gallon. That way, it will be too expensive for people in small towns to drive to a bigger airport, and it will make more financial sense for them to fly out of their local airport instead.

Robertspd
Member
Brett, you hit on the basic problem. There is NO modern aircraft being built to serve small communities. The 40 page “Report of the Working Group On Improving Air Service to Small Communities” devotes exactly three paragraphs (see page 23) to this issue. I recently worked with a client to initiate such service, reviewing in depth the operating costs of available aircraft that could serve EAS type communities. The very best economics were produced by the Cessna Grand Caravan (208b). This single engine airplane is slow, not pressurized with limited range and the product of 1960’s technology. As the report… Read more »
Larry
Guest

For the pilot shortage, you talk about reducing the pilot hours required. But why not also extend the mandatory retirement age from 65 to 70. When the 65 limit was enacted, life expectancy was shorter. And as you point out, those are the pilots flying big planes long distances (i.e. not as taxing on the body as multiple short hops). Extending it to 70 would solve a lot of problems.

Kilroy
Guest
Agreed on extending or eliminating the mandatory retirement age for pilots. Not only does it force the most experienced pilots out of the industry early, it also makes going into aviation less attractive for younger pilots, by reducing the years late in a pilot’s career when they are earning the big bucks, and thus reducing the returns on the very $$$$$ investment required (both in direct costs and in the years at low-paying jobs) to get the pilot licenses and flight hours early in a pilot’s career. I would argue that there shouldn’t really be a mandatory retirement age for… Read more »
mandel.jerry1
Member

Get the FAA to approve small airplanes for passenger service.

Mark
Guest
A big list of people on page 34 who almost all benefit from EAS program and SCASD grants will of course suggest those as options to fix the small community issue. I’d rather see the government use the EAS/SCASD money as tuition reimbursement programs for regional operators to pay their pilots under the agreement that X% of their contracted flying be to small community airports. Otherwise you get stuck in this cycle of airlines collecting SCASD and EAS money until it runs out, then moving the operation to the next small community 100 miles away to do the same while… Read more »
swintner
Member

“In airline hierarchy, the pilots flying big airplanes long distances get paid the most. The ones in the trenches flying 8 short hops a day in grueling weather conditions get paid the least.”

At what point do we recognize THAT’s the problem? The whole staffing model is broken. Are the unions just too powerful and stubborn to be part of the solution?

Bick Rowen
Member
Delta is addressing the alleged pilot pay shortage by in-sourcing flying from third-party operators via the 100-seat Bombardier C-Series. This is how Delta is adding capacity (to smaller airports) while reducing frequency: https://ibb.co/dbomhm The E-195-E2 is also a robust in-sourcing platform. As legacy airlines evolved to transition capacity to larger 100-seat mainline aircraft the pilot pay shortage will self-correct and restore the airline pilot profession beyond second-rate carriers. When generations of future pilots realize they can work directly for legacy airlines, they will respond more meaningfully to mainline legacy airline career opportunities the RAA makes every effort to outsource—which is… Read more »
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