Planes to nowhere? Congress plans to increase small-town airline subsidies

The Essential Air Service spends as much as thousands per passenger in remote areas. Critics say the program is wasteful and was to be phased out after a period of adjustment to ’70s deregulation.

By Alexander C. Hart
September 19, 2009
Reporting from Washington

Ely is a Nevada mining town with a population of 4,000. Located about a four-hour drive north of Las Vegas, it is perhaps most famous as the birthplace of former First Lady Pat Nixon.

Ely also is a beneficiary of Essential Air Service, a federal program established in the 1970s after airline deregulation to prevent small communities from losing access to air travel. But opponents call the program wasteful spending, noting that much of the money provides service to areas with fewer than 30 passengers a day.

This week, the Senate passed a transportation bill that includes a $38-million funding increase for the program, which now stands to receive $175 million.

In 2008, according to Senate Appropriations Committee data, Great Lakes Airlines received a subsidy of about $1.8 million for the 414 passengers it flew to and from Ely — about $4,500 per person.

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