Last week, SkyWest filed with the Department of Transportation (DOT) to end service to 29 cities under the Essential Air Service program. It’s not that the subsidies weren’t working, but rather it’s because when you don’t have enough pilots, you cut the routes that matter the least. And there’s no question that these routes fall to the bottom of the list for multiple reasons. This is just another reason why the EAS program is in serious need of reform.
Here is a look at all the cities in the Continental US that are eligible for the EAS program (or at least will be if not in another program).
You can tell which Congresspeople have done their jobs best here. Some states have far more dots than they deserve. (Yes, I’m talking about you Michigan.) But each of these dots represents a lifeline to the rest of the world, or, uh, at least a lifeline to somewhere else that might have a lifeline to the rest of the world.
The EAS program was designed to keep service to cities that were expected might lose out after deregulation passed. The program does kick out cities if demand is too low, but many of these places that remain have no business getting regular air service. Kansas is my favorite to pick on. Dodge City is 40 miles from Garden City and 80 miles from Liberal, yet they all have EAS service, hurting demand.
The luckiest of the EAS cities have good connectivity into the rest of the world. SkyWest had been one of those examples since it flew these routes under the United Express brand which provided connectivity throughout that network. But now SkyWest is trying to walk away.
SkyWest’s pitch is to end service in 29 markets, all the ones in red on the map above. It had filed plans last weekend to couple those cities together to save on flying. For example, there’s a flight that now will go Chicago – Salina (KS) – Hays (KS) – Denver instead of Chicago – Salina – Chicago and Denver – Hays – Denver. But this is just a temporary plan until it is allowed to end service to all of these cities.
The rationale for doing this is pretty straightforward. SkyWest does not have enough pilots to fly its schedule. It has been pulling down flying for partners over the last few months, because it can’t staff its airplanes. And now, either things are getting worse or it is trying to reprioritize so it can offer more flying to its partners.
The EAS routes that SkyWest flies are mostly if not entirely done under a pro-rate agreement, meaning that unlike capacity purchase agreements where the mainline airline is on the hook for paying a fixed amount plus pass through costs like fuel, SkyWest takes on the risk. United doesn’t mind having these under the United Express banner, because it has no risk, and that flying can only help feed the network. But that also makes it easier for SkyWest to decide to walk away. This is the right move.
The problem here is that SkyWest can’t just end service. The DOT will now have to go through the full process of finding new bidders to take over the flying, and only then can SkyWest stop. Some of these cities will come out looking good, like Garden City, KS which already has a bid from American to step in. But for others, it will be a choice between options that won’t provide as much connectivity, which is counter to the whole point of the program.
Every airline that is hamstrung and can’t hire pilots with fewer than 1,500 hours is feeling the pain right now. That means bids like American’s in Garden City will be few and far between. Instead, what’s most likely is that bids will come in from airlines operating 9-seaters since those don’t fall under the 1,500 hour rule.
This may be a downgauge, but it won’t be the end of the world for some. Some of these airlines can provide decent connectivity, like Southern Airways Express which at least has interline agreements with Alaska, American, and United. It still won’t be the same as having a 50-seat jet marketed by United the whole way through, but it’s also not as bad as having an operator that has no relationships with big airlines.
The 9-seaters will work well… but not everywhere. Some of these cities will really feel the pain if they can’t attract a jet operator. Salina, KS, for example, is about 400 miles from the nearest true hub. It takes an awfully long time for a 9-seater to fly that distance, and you won’t want to do it.
Overall, we aren’t talking about big numbers of people impacted here. For the full year 2021 according to Cirium’s T-100 database, regional jets carried just over 375,000 passengers from all these cities combined. That’s barely more than 1,000 passengers per day, or less than 35 per airport per day. Let’s put this into perspective. Those 29 airports generated fewer passengers combined than Burlington, VT alone did.
On the other hand, we aren’t talking about a lot of people, but we are talking about a lot of pilots being required. In a world where pilots are at a premium, it’s just not feasible to fly these routes. The EAS program needs to get more creative. It should consider buses as options. It should also cut the number of cities so that it can try and strengthen the few that remain.
The reality is that outside of Alaska and probably Eastern Montana, there isn’t a huge need for these flights because there are bigger and more useful airports nearby with better service. Politicians only care about getting their votes, so they won’t have the guts to kill service and reform the program. It’s a shame, because that’s the right thing to do as EAS becomes more and more of a burden on the airlines.