Big Bad Sequester Hits (Not So) Poor Little Airports

It’s been four days since the sequester went into effect and try as they might, the media and the Obama administration are having a tough time justifying the claims of Armageddon.  That doesn’t mean they won’t try, though.

One such piece details the reactions of folks in the conservative state of Kansas, where the air traffic control center of the Garden City Regional Airport “could” be shut down.

As the Heritage Foundation has suggested, though, air traffic control centers do not have to be run and controlled by the federal government via the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  It may be difficult for liberals to wrap their minds around this idea, but the private sector is fully capable of fulfilling these functions – and the private sector would do so more efficiently and cost effectively.

Moreover, the Garden City Regional Airport is actually one of the many small, rural airports subsidized by the federal taxpayer dollar through the FAA’s Essential Air Service (EAS) program, which was created in 1978 and was set to expire in ten years but still exists. 

According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the airport received an EAS subsidy of $2.9 million in 2012. The airport serviced 11, 670 passengers in 2011, operating two incoming flights and two outgoing flights per day.  For those doing the math at home, the EAS subsidy – yes, that is your taxpayer money – equals roughly $250 per ticket or $2,000 per flight.

According to the Kansas Aviation Economic Impact Study, the total economic output of the Garden City Regional Airport is $25.3 million.  Of that, $14.7 is the estimated direct output of the airport.  But with that level of economic output, why is the American taxpayer subsidizing this airport to the tune of $2.9 million per year and all of the EAS airports to the tune of over $200 million per year?

This subsidy has not gone unquestioned.  As one business travel columnist has noted, some EAS airports cost the American taxpayer $3,000 per flyer.  Here’s the breakdown:

Essential Air Service is also expensive. Passengers in EAS communities pay far more than average Americans to fly. One example from Nevada: The fare from Ely to Las Vegas is $149 one-way (or 67 cents a mile) even though Great Lakes receives $1.86 million in EAS subsidies to fly the route. So few travelers use the Ely-Las Vegas service that the subsidy works out to more than $3,000 per flyer. By contrast, Southwest sells Las Vegas to Chicago nonstops for as little as $153 one-way—about 10 cents per mile.

This same article notes, “EAS airports have had more than three decades to adjust to the realities of deregulated air service.”

These are valid points.  No one is rejoicing that a select number of air traffic controllers “could” be laid off, though as we’ve said before those claims are highly dubious.  More broadly, the Garden City Regional Airport serves as an important reminder of just how entangled the federal government is in our daily lives.  It cannot be said that those positions justify the cost to taxpayers across the country, especially in light of our $16 trillion debt.

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The FAA's Essential Air Service is not as "essential" as it sounds.

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