As I scrolled the list of cities that would no longer qualify for Essential Air Service earlier this month, I felt that same helpless frustration that always hits me when the topic of small city air service comes up. Air service to small cities has gotten worse nearly across the board for the last couple decades, and nobody seems to have any solutions. Looking at these 27 cities, however, can help explain a lot about why this is happening.
To remain in the Essential Air Service program, airports that aren’t completely remote (so, not in Alaska) have to enplane at least 10 passengers per day and require a subsidy of less than $200 per passenger (still quite a tidy sum). These 27 airports failed the test using 2016 numbers:
|Alamosa (CO)||Hagerstown (MD)||Macon (GA)||Pueblo (CO)|
|Altoona (PA)||Imperial (CA)||Mason City (IA)||Salina (KS)|
|Bradford (PA)||Jackson (TN)||Muscle Shoals (AL)||Scottsbluff (NE)|
|Clarksburg (WV)||Jamestown (NY)||Owensboro (KY)||Tupelo (MS)|
|DuBois (PA)||Johnstown (PA)||Parkersburg (WV)||Vernal (UT)|
|Ft Dodge (IA)||Kearney (NE)||Pendleton (OR)||Victoria (TX)|
|Franklin/Oil City (PA)||Lancaster (PA)||Prescott (AZ)|
Not all of them are on here for the same reason, nor will all actually lose service. Here’s why.
The (Un)Lucky 8
The towns of Pueblo and Macon failed to enplane 10 passengers a day while Muscle Shoals, Imperial, Pueblo, Salina, Tupelo, Pendleton, and Vernal required subsidies of more than $200 per passenger. For that reason, they should be out of the program, but they get a stay of execution. Why? Because they had lost their previous service and were in a period of transition while a new operator was found.
This is an increasingly common problem in these small cities. It’s rare that even a traditional regional airline is willing to fly to these cities, because they’re all too busy scrambling to find pilots to fly jets on bigger routes for partner airlines. SkyWest, for example, removed itself from many routes when it stopped flying its Brasilia turboprops. That has left really tiny operators to fill the void.
In some cases, these airlines do have relationships with larger airlines to bridge the gap to the rest of the world. Great Lakes, for example, is one of those. But Great Lakes has become unreliable at best and has shrunk dramatically because it simply doesn’t have enough pilots. It is not alone. Other airlines, like now-bankrupt SeaPort, haven’t been able to put together a viable business thanks to the many hurdles that are out there. And some like Boutique Air may be able to provide service but they are isolated from the rest of the global travel network and can’t interline bags and people. The state of affairs has left some cities, like Macon, with no service at all in 2016 despite the subsidy being available. It now has flights from Contour Airlines to Baltimore, so apparently DOT will wait and see how that goes.
This means service shifts a lot, and carriers go in and out providing no consistency. For these 8 cities, DOT has decided to give them another chance.
The Empty 6
Altoona, Bradford, DuBois, Franklin/Oil City, Jamestown, and Victoria all failed to enplane 10 passengers a day. For most, it wasn’t even close, though Bradford and DuBois almost cracked the 9 passenger mark.
With the exception of Victoria, these are all Rust Belt towns that have seen their industrial economies dry up. They’re also very close to other options. Jamestown and Bradford are only 75 miles from Buffalo. Franklin is 85 miles from Pittsburgh while Altoona and DuBois are 110 miles away. That doesn’t sound very far, but it’s actually far worse than that.
Take Altoona (please, *rimshot*). The city of Altoona is 20 miles north of its own airport, but it’s also only 40 miles south of State College. State College is an airport that has commercial service from several airlines, but it too has struggled. Why should the government be funding flights in Altoona that only hurt the chances of State College succeeding? There aren’t many people flying from Altoona, but that’s because Southern Airways Express can only fly travelers to Baltimore or Pittsburgh and can’t connect them beyond. Most people are probably already driving to State College since they can get nearly anywhere important with a single stop from there. It’s no wonder that there hasn’t been a lot of demand for this service.
Most of these other cities in the Rust Belt face the same predicament. They step on top of each other and prevent any one airport from being successful.
The Expensive 13
The remaining airports all require a subsidy that’s just too rich for the US government at more than $200 per passenger. I should note that most of The Empty 6 also require too much subsidy, but that’s no surprise when you can’t even muster 10 passengers a day. In fact, they’re the worst offenders with Altoona, the absolute worst, requiring an incredible $734 per passenger.
The worst of the rest is Prescott, Arizona with a $411 per passenger subsidy. (Fun fact: pronounced “press-kit.”) Prescott is actually one of the lucky ones in that it has two daily flights (one on weekend days) to a major hub at LAX. The service is flown by Great Lakes, an airline which has interline agreements with the big 3 airlines and even a codeshare with United. On the surface, this seems like the kind of service that would work, if any would.
But clearly it doesn’t. The city lies only 100 miles north of Phoenix Sky Harbor, and the drive takes less than 2 hours. There’s also a frequent shuttle that’s $37 each way. Once in Phoenix, people can fly nonstop to most of the destinations they care about. And they can do it for cheap. I picked a random day in December and the lowest fare from Prescott to San Francisco via LA was about $300 one way. From Phoenix, it was $100 to go nonstop. Meanwhile, Great Lakes uses an Embraer Brasilia, a fairly large airplane that requires a lot more subsidy than, say, a Cessna Grand Caravan. But at 350 miles, that would be quite the haul for a smaller airplane like the Caravan. If there was a ton of demand, this route might work on less subsidy. But there’s just not enough to spread those costs out.
These are just the worst of the worst. If you look through the EAS program, you’ll see other routes that are failing as well, just not as badly. But these EAS routes may be their own worst enemy, hurting potentially viable service as other nearby airports. With the pilot pool shrinking and options dwindling, something needs to change. It’s just hard to know exactly what and how. In the near future I’ll look at a report that tries to tackle this issue.