Essential Air Service Takes a Beating With SkyWest Cuts

Government Regulation

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).

EAS Eligible Cities Map generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.
Red are cities SkyWest is proposing to drop

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.

34 comments on “Essential Air Service Takes a Beating With SkyWest Cuts

  1. Salina is only 162 miles from MCI. I know Kansas City isn’t an official hub for WN, and MCI is not really set up for connections and not a fun airport to use (EXTREMELY tight on space before and after security, thanks for the old design concept of minimizing “curb to gate” distance), so it wouldn’t be ideal, but I’d argue that a SLN-MCI flight would at least be better than nothing.

    With regards to the Michigan EAS airports… I agree, not a ton of justification for EAS routes in the Lower Peninsula. TVC (Traverse City) is a non-EAS airport that probably has the most options north of Lansing and that is within ~2 hours’ drive of most of the EAS airports in the LP, and it’s actually a pretty nice airport for a “small town” airport (lots of $$$$$ summer homes in the TVC area, plus a fair number of wineries and orchards in the area, along with a few casinos).

    There is perhaps some justification for EAS in parts of the Upper Peninsula (remember that Detroit is closer to Washington, DC, than it is to parts of the Upper Peninsula), though both Iron Mountain & Escanaba are ~2 hours by car or less from Green Bay (which is another very nice small town airport).

  2. Cranky, first I’m surprised this post isn’t sponsored by Landline.

    It would be really great if the DOT could get the FRA and FTA to cooperate and use some the EAS money to operate more rural bus service connecting at least some of these communities to major hub cities and providing more transportation options to everyone. States are already required to spend a percentage of their 5311 FTA Rural Program funds to subsidize intercity bus service, connecting rural areas with major urban centers where their is demonstrated need (pretty much in all states except a few tiny ones in the northeast). Michigan DOT (using these Federal Funds) actually does a really good job at having a comprehensive subsided 5 route rural intercity bus system in the Northern Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula operated by Indian Trails, these buses includes daily service to all of their EAS cities. Indiana Trails has through-ticketing agreements with both Greyhound and even Amtrak’s national train network (you can take a train for example to generally Kalamazoo or Milwaukee and continue by bus to the UP). I think of this lack of synergy between the rural air and ground-transportation network every time I read an article about the EAS program.

  3. It would be a small government fan’s dream if one noxious habit of government, over regulation, made another noxious habit of government, pork barrel spending, impossible. Fingers crossed. DIE EAS DIE!

    1. The promise of America: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness… and heavily-subsidized CRJ service to your airport in the middle of nowhere that you’d never actually fly because you drive two hours to PIT, PHL or MCI for far-cheaper flights anyways.

  4. In addition to all this, they had already started the process to depart OGS and PBG. Neither of those airports received overly attractive bids, which may be predictive to what will happen elsewhere.

  5. EAS is always so interesting. There are places I understand why they have service, like Vernal, UT and Page, AZ. But Morgantown is 1 hour and 15 minutes from Pittsburgh International, Cedar City is an hour from St George, and El Centro is 1 hour and 9 minutes from Yuma. I don’t remember what the criteria is for EAS but I personally think it should be a large enough community at least an hour and a half drive from anywhere with scheduled air service.

    1. > I don’t remember what the criteria is for EAS but I personally think it should be a large enough community at least an hour and a half drive from anywhere with scheduled air service.

      I’d agree, though I’d argue for something closer to 2 or 2.5 hours.

      I’m sympathetic to people who live in more rural areas (and would love to be one of them, if only my job would permit it), but there are a lot of places where long drives are just a part of life, and where people think nothing of having to drive 40-75 minutes each way to the nearest mall (remember those?) or big box discount store, just because they’ve always had to do it.

      Given that it can take 90+ minutes with traffic by car to get to JFK or EWR from parts of NYC, and 45-60+ minutes to get to downtown with public transportation from major hub airports, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask people in rural areas to drive 90-120 minutes to get to an airport with scheduled air service.

  6. SkyWest hired 100 new pilots in February…. However the lost 200 pilots in February. If this continues throughout the year there will be no SkyWest. The regional business model is built on the backs of cheap labor which is a house of cards. They are getting exactly what they deserve…

  7. The regional airline pilot and mechanic shortage (it isn’t just pilots) is real and is causing cities to lose service. The EAS program does not provide margins as high as capacity purchase agreements, esp. in a rising fuel and labor cost environment. EAS is a government attempt to influence market dynamics but many small cities don’t generate the traffic necessary to support unsupported regional airline service. Given that the map above shows how many EAS cities are within a relatively short distance of each other, the solution is not to try to serve every remote community with air service but to pick a city in a region which will get air service while others do not – but that type of cooperative mindset is counter to many cities.
    Cutting EAS markets is an attempt to preserve capacity purchase agreements but there is still a mass reduction in regional airline capacity at about 2x the rate of reduction in capacity compared to mainline capacity cuts.
    United is by far the most exposed because of their high percentage of regional carrier flights and they most definitely would rather see Skywest dump EAS cities if they can fly a few more capacity purchase flights to/from their hubs. United’s IAH and IAD hubs esp. are getting whacked with every hub taking significant hits.
    Delta is bringing back as many 717s as possible because it worked well to take over RJ routes for 10 years. Even if it is not as cost-efficient as other mainline aircraft, the 717’s economics compare favorable to RJs. Mainline carriers can get enough applicants but regional airlines cannot.
    Add in that Southwest will get very few mainline aircraft this year because the MAX7 will not enter service until late this year at the earliest and the pilot shortage will hit another inflection point as WN starts hiring for 2023.

  8. Interesting that they’re only dropping EAS routes they fly dba United, and none that dba Delta.

    As you point out, one problem with the EAS criteria is that it only considers distance to a “hub” airport, not distance to any commercial service. Without Liberal and Dodge City service, Garden City may very well not need EAS subsidy. Same with western Nebraska or upstate NY. Massena and Ogdensburg are both in the same county. Take bids for one or the other, but not both.

    1. Good point. It’s worth nothing that some of that may be down to DL taking a buzz saw to over 20 EAS cities (think TVF, BRD, TUP, etc.) in 2011 when it retired the Saab 340’s.

      In the COVID fallout, they added a few more permanently to that list. They’ve also cut service to one hub or another at several places. Maybe there’s not that much left to cut?

      1. Yes, it struck me that many of the cities Skywest dba UA is dropping were formerly dropped as EAS cities by DL. Mason City, Fort Dodge, Sioux City, Jamestown, Devils Lake, Houghton, Muskegon, Meridian, Hattiesburg/Laurel, and Lewisburg were all former DL/NW Saab cities. Paducah was also a NW Saab city.

        1. I thought Lewisburg had always been United with service to Dulles. The rest of the above cities had DL/NW service to MSP or MEM

    1. That one really stuck out to me. There are people that live in San Francisco that need more time to get to SFO than it takes for people to get from Ogden to SLC. Should we rebuild Chrissy Field and provide EAS subsidies there?

  9. As Tim Dunn correctly pointed out (one has to give credit where credit is due), the whole regional airline space is increasingly challenged (for lack of a better cliche) and the EAS program is only part of that dynamic. I’m not sure I’m quite as cynical as Tim when he writes, “EAS is a government attempt to influence market dynamics” but it’s certainly too influenced by politics. A number of the dots on the map appear to be close to rail lines that have Amtrak service, especially in the eastern part of the country (but also in northeastern Montana where they appear to be close to Amtrak’s Empire Builder route). I’m pretty sure most of them are also near highways, since the government at all levels pours trillions upon trillions of dollars into them.

    As the article points out, the whole EAS system is in need of reform. It can also be argued that the country’s whole public/mass transportation system needs to be looked at, not only by the government, but by the private sector. Maybe I’m naive (and I could be mistaken), but it seems to me that the government at all levels, airlines, Amtrak, private rail operators such as Brightline, bus companies, limousine services, etc. could work together to serve smaller or isolated communities in a cost-effective way. The data are there, so why not take a serious, unemotional look at it?

    I tend to doubt there’s a one-size-fits-all solution. So the parties should be open to the idea that the ultimate answer(s) in each instance may not be the ones that seem the most readily apparent at first blush. The original post mentions that using buses may be more cost-effective than flying. That may not always be true. A 400-mile bus journey can take 8 hours or more. And drivers have to be paid for all of that time. Even at lower hourly rates, the time differential can offset lower wages. It may be more cost-effective to fly longer distances. But busses and trains can easily serve intermediate points along a given route by stopping along the way. Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited between Chicago and New York serves South Bend, Toledo, Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, and some smaller cities. How many flights would be needed to connect each pair of those 8 cities and towns non-stop once a day? According to http://www.statskingdom.com, that number is 28.

    I don’t know if my admittedly superficial (and possibly flawed) analysis has any merit, but the data are there to check out. This isn’t about automatically using rail or bus services versus regional airlines, as being done in France, but is simply pointing out some of the considerations that need to be thought through. If the goal is to serve the country’s overall transportation needs in the most efficient and cost-effective ways (plural), any analysis should be data-driven, not politically driven – and therein lies the rub.

  10. $120 per barrel oil makes the abandonment of certain routes quite easy. If it persists, major carriers will do the same, albeit through reduced frequency more than complete pull-out. The big question is: Who will blink first?

    1. Crude oil is below $100/bbl today for the first time in 2 weeks.
      JP Morgan had a major investor conference in which many US airlines participated and the theme across the board is that demand is very strong, surged heavily after omicron, and the demand surge came just as fuel prices were rising so airlines have been able to revenue manage to offset most of the fuel increases. There are also varying levels of domestic business and long-haul international demand returning but airline execs that 2022 will be a strong recovery year. There was a lot of panic in the markets as the Ukraine war broke out and oil soared but that was excessive.
      Fuel price increases and regional jet usage are separate issues; American addressed that they lost revenue because of the regional jet capacity shortfall that they could not replace.
      Airlines with the highest percentage of regional jet capacity – UA at the top, then AA, then AS and DL at the bottom with RJs as a percent of their domestic capacity – will face revenue shortfalls regardless of the price of fuel.
      Some RJ capacity doesn’t work given near $100/bbl fuel but given how strong demand is, those carriers that are short of the abililty to add or re-add seats will struggle to return revenue; it is also no surprise that ultra low cost carriers are aggressively growing because they have airplanes and are adding flights where they see opportunities including in small cities.

      1. Good analysis. I see that Southwest gave some positive revenue guidance for the 1st Quarter. Still not up to 2019 standards, but better than previously expected. So that certainly speaks to your point above about strong demand.

        1. Every airline that presented at the JP Morgan conference talked about very strong demand and the ability to largely offset higher fuel costs because there is enough demand to cut off the lowest fares. Multiple airlines said that they have had record ticket sales over the past couple of weeks – likely a combination of the end of covid restrictions in various parts of the world and pentup demand that many believed would resurface as soon as the ability to travel freely was regained.
          It is precisely that strong demand that makes it less likely for airlines to tolerate low margin subsidized routes when those assets can be better deployed elsewhere. The RJ pilot shortage is simply making companies choose what is in their best financial interest and many EAS cities are not.

  11. It looks like the DOT has intervened (at least temporarily) in Skywest’s EAS shutdown plans. It will be interesting to see if Uncle Sam sweetens the pot in an attempt to lure some Skywest capacity away from its codeshare partners, if possible.

    1. Why should taxpayers fund the removal of flights/routes that are more profitable to continue EAS routes that aren’t sustainable when we have a limited resource (pilots).

  12. I can see maintaining some of the EAS program, but many of these places simply don’t need it.

    For example, look at the two dots in the centre of California – these are Merced and Visalia. Merced currently has EAS service to LAS and LAX on Advanced Air, Visalia has no current EAS service but has in the past.

    Using the airports as a starting point, Merced is 63 miles from FAT, and Visalia is only 43, with service to hubs for AA, AS, DL, UA, and WN. From Fresno you go directly to ORD or DFW, bypassing the western hubs. It’s also an hour drive north from Merced to Stockton and Allegiant’s service there, and Merced also has Amtrak California service with an easy switch at Richmond for BART.

    There’s just no need for this subsidized service, and I suspect a lot of these other EAS cities are just as egregious.

    1. EXACTLY!

      If I had a ton of spare time, I’d love to do a similar review of every EAS city. I bet good old common sense (remember that?) would eliminate at least 90% of them.

      1. Now that you mention it, I’m a little surprised that a Washington thinktank hasn’t already done a review of every EAS city and argued for the significant reform or elimination of the program.

  13. Over the past 20 years LWB had DL with RJ service to LGA and ATL but that was supposed to be subsidized by a local resort and someone apparently did not live up to their commitment. Afterwards we had Silver Airways LWB to PIT and from BKW to IAD followed by godawful Via Air who among other things would cancel scheduled flights in favor of doing a charter elsewhere…..
    SkyWest has done a decent job with year round service to ORD and MAR-NOV service to IAD.
    The problem is with pilot shortages everywhere they cannot attract enough pilots paying 10-25k a year less than mainline pilots are making, can’t blame the pilots for that!!
    However, can you guess why UA recently axed the vaccine mandate for their crews? You got it! Could not get enough to staff the flights to operate them!
    EAS has its place but also its limitations.
    Concerning the fares from other airports I find the fares to be quite competitive. Oftentimes for flights overseas same fare and sometimes lower from LWB than from IAD!
    Also let’s keep in mind the ACTUAL cost of driving, parking, etc. going to a hub.
    In addition the service is not only for the residents of those areas, think business travel TO the area. If it’s too cumbersome or complicated many companies will simply not bother to do certain deals, acquire a company and its valuable parts then shut it down and transfer it elsewhere.
    It’s not as simple as it looks – other than the pilot shortages…..
    then again airlines like EAS when it’s good for them so make them perform according to contract.
    Go and cancel a ticket or watch them have a flight cancelation for other than weather or technical and see what they sometimes do to passengers… not pretty!!
    Just one man’s opinion :-)

  14. I saw today that SkyWest and Southwest have an agreement for a pilot flow-through program called Destination 225 (degrees, the southwest heading on a compass). Do you think that will have a meaningful contribution to SkyWest pilot ranks? I know some who wanted to work for SkyWest but went to other regionals that were part of other airline training and flow-through programs.

  15. The only time I ever used an EAS route was from ORD-BRL, Burlington, Iowa. Why? Because who wouldn’t take a cheap Cessna Caravan ride for a minor league baseball game and fly home? It was a blast. I’m dismayed EAS has outlived the Burlington Bees’ affiliation with Major League Baseball.

    1. I took an EAS flight from DAL to Boone County, AR, which stopped in Little Rock and Hot Springs if memory serves. Sitting in seat 1A and looking over the pilots’ shoulders as they flew the 8- or 12-passenger Cessna was a bucket list item for me, and the flight was cheaper than a regular commercial flight from DAL to XNA (roughly an hour away from Boone County, AR).

      Got me a bit of a reputation in the office when I mentioned that I’d done that as part of a multi-leg business trip, but it saved the company money and was a lot of fun. Worst part of the whole thing was actually driving back to Fayetteville from Boone County; first area I’ve seen where people consistently drive well under the speed limit, even in good weather and road conditions, but better to be cautious, I guess.

  16. To me in regards to EAS service, I think a full re-evaulation should occur. Allow the operations of Air Taxi based services that connect small rural communities with that of a nearby regional airport. Someone thats a GA pilot could be allowed to take a small number of people between an EAS or unserved rural community to a nearby regional airport. Example- Crescent City. Allow an air taxi service that connects the 2 nearest Regional airports of ACV and MFR to allow residents access to all airlines, instead of a once a day service to Oakland.
    As for the mainline carriers, they can contract with an Air Taxi operator and allow a customer in an EAS area to have access to their network.
    To help solve the pilot crisis, allow pilots with less than the 1500 hour rule to work and be paid under this airtaxi agreement and fly with more advanced GA pilots and flihgt instructors.

    As for regional airlines, I think the government should step in and do a full breakdown on the whole regional air network. To me regional airlines should go back to their own name and brand, but provide THRU service contracts with the larger airlines. I would like to see the end of contract flying, think it is rather inefficient as a system. As a customer from ACV, we have endured years of only having United as our only airline. Contract flying, only allows me access to United’s network, and having to pay an unaffordable flight option. For me, I would love to be able to choose ANY major airline in the USA, and be able to have access to their network. Skywest would be responsible for my leg to say SFO/LAX/DEN/PHX, etc… and then a major airline could pick me up for a different leg OR I can continue within Skywest’s network. Mainline carriers would be forced to decide if they want to offer mainline service from major Hubs to small regional airports, or they contract with Skywest. Skywest as a standalone carrier could choose to purchase their own fuel efficient and modern fleet, but not restricted by service contracts from various pilots unions etc.. Maybe place a restriction on the number of seats that can be on a regional airplane, or place a restriction on flying distance. To me when I think of a regional airline, I think of an airline that services a region. (Like SFO to various western cities, or Seattle to service PNW and Northern Rockies cities.)

  17. No reason for Kearney NE to have service; Grand Island 40 minutes east has AA and Allegiant. Plus LNK is 2 hours east. Keep North Platte (especially since McCook EAS was removed) Scottsbluff can drive to North Platte or Cheyenne. SUX? Omaha less than 2 hours south, only an issue if snow, but guessing most people head down the night before anyway or use Sioux Falls.
    So many of these need re-evaluated and removed anyway….Morgantown is so close to PIT……

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Cranky Flier