The long-standing Essential Air Services (EAS) program has been fundamental to air travel in America after the deregulation of the airline industry. Although its continuity has been controversial, it is also an unknown program to the average traveler.
What is the program ?
Essentially, the US EAS program aims to ensure that small US communities are still served by airlines, despite the diminishing value of carriers operating flights to these locations. The federal government subsidizes flights to these communities to “maintain a minimum level of scheduled air service,” the US Department of Transportation said.
The United States introduced the program in 1978 when the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA) was passed, which abolished the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) which determined the domestic routes that airlines were to serve and the costs involved.
Although there is a high eligibility criterion for airlines to fly these routes and be subsidized, those funded for two round trips per day with aircraft carrying between 30 and 50 passengers. Or the government will subsidize more frequencies with smaller planes to a medium or large airport.
According to the DOT, the federal government currently subsidizes carriers to serve about 60 communities in Alaska and 115 in the lower 48 contiguous states.
There is also the Alternate Essential Air Service, which provides grants directly to the airport authority instead of the airline. It offers more flexibility when choosing a service that may not meet EAS guidelines – such as a smaller aircraft for less frequent flights.
Delta Air Lines is one of the last three trunk carriers remaining in the United States. Photo: Getty Images.
Why was it necessary?
Prior to the deregulation of the airline industry, the government struggled to keep up with the booming travel industry, especially in the era of jet aviation. This led to higher ticket prices and higher labor and fuel prices.
Deregulation of the industry was ultimately to reduce costs, increase airline competition and give new entrants a chance to cut red tape from the ‘mainline’ airlines – the carriers licensed by the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 to operate interstate services.
However, after the passage of the ADA – and even before – there was concern that many small communities would be disconnected from national air services due to airlines serving more lucrative markets. So enter the EAS. That same year, Congress added Section 419 to the Federal Aviation Act and established the program.
How it works?
The eligibility requirements are strict because it is an expensive test. Previous governments, like the George W. Bush administration, tried to keep it below $50 million a year, but now the subsidies are up to $339.19 million a year in taxpayer dollars.
There are several requirements for an airline to join the program. The first is that airlines cannot receive a subsidy of more than $200 per passenger in the 48 contiguous states, unless the community is located more than 210 miles from the nearest large or medium airport, explains the DOWRY. This was enshrined in regulation in 2000, and by 2015 airlines had to comply or face the subsidy being removed.
Another eligibility requirement changed in 2012 was that airlines had to maintain a minimum of ten boardings – boarding passenger planes – per day, except for locations in Alaska and Hawaii or 175 miles from the airport hub the closest.
Another rule that went into effect in 2000 is that carriers cannot receive subsidies to fly to communities within 70 freeway miles of the nearest large or medium airport. This rule has caused a new set of problems for specific communities and caused the DOT to make certain exemptions.
According to Airline Geeks, in one instance Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Hagerstown, Maryland were located within 70 miles of an airport hub and were cut from the schedule. But after asking the DOT to review their mileage because the “most commonly used route” was over 70 miles, an exemption was granted for both locations.
If an airline or community does not meet the eligibility criteria, DOT may remove them from the program. Some that previously received grants include Jamestown in New York, Franklin in Pennsylvania and Huron in South Dakota. These communities were removed for multiple reasons, such as having less than ten daily boardings or exceeding the $200 cap.
Controversial these days
The program was the backbone of travel access in the late 1970s and 1980s for small communities, but now there are mixed feelings about whether it’s still useful.
In May this year, Ben Baldanza, the former CEO of Spirit Airlines and now a board member of JetBlue Airways, wrote in Forbes about how the program is out of date. He argues that it was originally intended for ten-year service, and now it’s been 44 years, and some guidelines don’t make sense in the current environment.
A Bombardier CRJ-200 is a highly selected aircraft for the EAS program. Photo: Getty Images
Baldanza said that by the time it was supposed to end, in 1988, only a third of then-subsidized cities would lose full air service, and most of them had “reasonable driving distances” to airport hubs not subsidized with significant connectivity. He said:
“Now we are in 2022, and EAS grants are higher, even in nominal dollars, compared to the first 10 years of the program. This is despite the fact that new, smaller and more efficient planes have been developed and that airlines are using the flow from these small towns into large hubs. With more diversity than ever in airline models and more efficiency in planes than ever before, taxpayers don’t need to pay hundreds of dollars per passenger in subsidy so that people in some small towns can keep their air service.
He thinks it would be more beneficial to increase bus services in smaller communities or the option of government-paid parking at airports, which would be much cheaper than the millions spent on the service.
If his opinion is divided, who knows how long the service will last? All airlines in the program are under contract, with most ending in the next few years.
Sources: POINT, Airline Geeks, Forbes