Un-Essential Air Service

Want to get to Vegas from Ely, Nevada? How about a $5,223 plane ticket? Don’t worry. Its price tag is only $149 — the taxpayer covers the rest. Suddenly, flying seems like a much more attractive option to the four-hour drive to “Sin City.”

Short flights like these foster “economic development” that maintain rural towns all over America, according to Democratic members of Congress and local officials. But even some beneficiaries disagree with the premise of the $200 million “Essential Air Service” (EAS) program. Mike Olson is the executive director of the Central Nebraska Regional Airport, which receives $2.2 million every year in subsidies to run flights from Grand Island, Nebraska, to Denver, Colorado — and he cannot see the merit in these politicians’ backward economic logic:

I’m shaking my head saying ‘This is ridiculous. This is absolutely ludicrous that we’re spending that kind of money…[I’m] an airport director at an EAS airport, but I’m a taxpayer too and I’m saying this is not good. … It’s a waste of fuel, a waste of a lot of taxpayer dollars to fly one or two people, or three people, at most a handful a day.

Olson isn’t alone in his common sense judgment. The House passed a measure along party lines on Wednesday to cut $16.6 million dollars from EAS airports in sparsely populated states like Nevada, Montana, West Virginia, and New Mexico. Despite its important-sounding moniker, the program is anything but essential. Created in 1978 when the government deregulated airlines, the EAS was a means to maintain unprofitable flights in rural areas. Proof that the subsidies amount to nothing more than squandered dollars is in the program’s rationale to prop up economically inefficient businesses.

The cuts to EAS reside within a “routine” funding reauthorization for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). As a result, the Democratic-controlled Senate will almost certainly reject the entire bill and blame Republicans for an FAA shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) will undoubtedly espouse specious rhetoric about rural economic development, but the real truth is that they want to protect precious pork rolling back to their electorates. Republicans ought to dismiss their poor economics and ignore their self-interested cries for taxpayer dollars.