The Essential Air Service Keeps Small Towns in the Thick of Things

This little-known government program provides subsidies to airlines to keep servicing small towns across America.
Marcia Wendorf
Bombardier CRJ200Eric Salard/Wikimedia

COVID-19 has allowed many of us to work from home, and increasingly, people are moving out of big cities and into suburbs and small towns located in more rural areas.

Due to the lack of access to a large airport, this might not sound like an option for people who must travel frequently on business, or for people who need to travel for other reasons, such as to receive medical care. However, a little-known government program is turning that notion on its head. Welcome to the Essential Air Service (EAS).

The history of EAS

The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 gave U.S. air carriers almost total freedom to decide which domestic markets they would serve, and how much they would charge for that service.

To ensure that small towns and rural areas that had received air service before deregulation would continue to receive service, Congress added section 419 to the Federal Aviation Act, which created the EAS program. The program provides subsidies to airlines to continue service to these areas.

The EAS program is administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which determines:

  • The minimum level of service required by each community
  • The hub airport(s) to which flights will come and go
  • The minimum number of round trip flights per day
  • The size of the aircraft and the number of available seats.

Currently, 60 communities in Alaska, and 115 communities in the lower 48 contiguous states are being served by the EAS program. The program is financed by fees paid by foreign aircraft that fly over the U.S. but don't land, and through excise taxes on passengers, fuel, and cargo.

In 2000, the Department of Transportation and Related Agencies Appropriations Act prohibited DOT from providing essential air service subsidies to communities in the lower 48 states that are fewer than 70 miles (112 km) from the nearest large or medium hub airport, or that require a rate of subsidy per passenger in excess of $200, unless those communities are located more than 210 miles (338 km) from the nearest medium or large-sized hub airport. Communities can, however, petition for a waiver of the $200 cap.

Hub airports are part of the "hub and spoke" system used by airlines today. A hub is a central airport through which flights are routed. Spokes are the routes that planes take into and out of the hub airport. Airlines typically designate one or more hub airports as their flight operations center, for example, Delta Airlines has as its hub and operations center Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

In an attempt to save money on the program, the 2011 Airport and Airway Extension Act limited EAS subsidies to $1,000 per passenger, regardless of the distance from the nearest hub airport, except for communities in Alaska and Hawaii. 

In 2012, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act stated that in order to be eligible, a community must maintain an average of 10 or more arriving or departing passengers (enplanements) per day, with communities in Alaska and Hawaii, and those that are more than 175 driving miles (280 km) from the nearest large or medium-hub airport, being exempted.

EAS's impact on a community

Continued air service helps communities promote economic development and it supports jobs. Let's take a closer look at how EAS impacts the community of Vernal, Utah.

Vernal, Utah Regional Airport
Vernal, Utah Regional Airport Source: Don Green Photography

Located in the far northeastern corner of the state, Vernal is approximately 175 miles (280 km) east of Salt Lake City, and 20 miles (32 km) west of the Colorado border. As of the 2018 census, the city had 10,370 residents.

Thanks to the EAS, according to Flightradar24, Vernal has two departures and two arrivals each day through either SkyWest Airlines or United Express, which is a division of United Airlines.

All flights into and out of Vernal connect to the Denver International Airport, a large-sized hub airport, and they are on Bombardier CRJ200 aircraft, which seat 50 passengers. Air carriers typically enter into two or four-year contracts, which allows the DOT or the communities to switch air carriers if they want. DOT staggers the ends of contracts so that it can negotiate new subsidy rates on new contracts.

Six to nine months before a contract expires, the DOT issues a Request for Proposals (RFP) for air carriers to submit service and subsidy proposals. For communities other than those in Alaska, DOT considers five factors when deciding on a carrier selection:

  1. The demonstrated reliability of the air carrier
  2. What arrangements the carrier has made with other carriers to provide ongoing service from the hub airport
  3. What interline agreements the carrier has with other airlines that allow passengers and cargo to be transported via one reservation, ticket, and baggage check-in
  4. The preferences of community members and elected officials
  5. What plan the carrier has to market its service to the community

Despite efforts to curb EAS subsidies, since 2008 the price of the program has increased by 132 percent. Part of this increase is due to high aviation fuel prices during 2008 through 2014. The statute governing the EAS doesn't mention cost among the four factors that the DOT must consider when evaluating air carriers' bids. Also, neither the carriers nor the communities are obliged to select service options that minimize the government's costs.

What planes are used?

The planes used to ferry passengers from EAS-subsidized cities are not specified in the legislation. Currently, they include the 50-seat Bombardier CRJ200, which was made by the Canadian manufacturer between 1991 and 2006. The plane, a picture of which appears at the beginning of this story, is powered by two GE CF334 turbofan engines mounted on the rear fuselage.

While production of the plane ended in 2006, many of these aircraft remain in service. In 2020, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries bought the entire CRJ line from Bombardier, and they will continue support for the aircraft.

Cessna 208 Caravan
Cessna 208 Caravan. Source: Lt. Col. Scott Voskovitch/Wikimedia

On the smaller side is the Cessna 208 Caravan which seats nine passengers in an unpressurized cabin. The first production model of this aircraft was certified in 1986, and it is powered by a single Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A turboprop engine.

The plane has a fixed landing gear which can be wheels, floats, or even skis. As of November 2017, there were 2,600 planes in the skies, and besides flying commuters, the planes are used for flight training, air cargo, and humanitarian missions.

Pilatus PC-12
Pilatus PC-12 Source: Chris Finney/Wikimedia

Also on the small side is the Pilatus PC-12, which has been manufactured by Pilatus Aircraft of Stans, Switzerland since 1991. The PC-12 is the best-selling pressurized single-engine turbine-powered aircraft in the world, and as of October 2019, 1,700 of the planes were flying.

Embraer ERJ-145
Embraer ERJ-145 Source: John Davies/Wikimedia

The 50-seat Embraer ERJ-145 was introduced in April 1997, and is produced by the Brazilian company Embraer. It is powered by two rear-fuselage-mounted AE3007 turbofan engines, which give the plane a range of up to 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 km). Production of the plane ended in 2020, with 1,231 of the planes having been built.

Will EAS continue?

On February 10, 2020, the administration released its budget request for the fiscal year 2021, and it included a $141.7 million appropriation for EAS. This was $20.3 million less than FY2020's appropriation. On July 8, 2020, the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee approved the budget request. The 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act reauthorized the EAS program through FY2023.

Some communities, such as Hagerstown, Maryland in October of 2019 and Jamestown, NY in January of 2018, have lost their EAS subsidies, and with them, their commercial airline service. Last year, Muskegon, Michigan was about to lose its EAS subsidy because it is only 48 miles (77 km) away from the Grand Rapids Airport. That airport was on its way to achieving "medium hub" status, but then COVID-19 struck, passengers dwindled, and Grand Rapids didn't achieve medium-hub status. This allowed Muskegon to keep receiving its EAS subsidy.

Seasonality also plays a role. The West Yellowstone Airport in Montana receives twice-daily flights on board Delta Airlines CRJ200s, but only from May until mid-October. Similarly, the airport at Bar Harbor, Maine is serviced by Cape Cod, Massachusetts-based Cape Air between Labor Day and Memorial Day, however, it is serviced by Florida-based Silver Airways during the summer "high season", from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Below are just some of the cities and towns within the lower 48 states that are currently being subsidized by EAS, their airport, hub airport, air carrier, type of aircraft, and seating capacity. The Department of Transportation maintains a full list of EAS-subsidized airports.

State Community Airport Destinations Air carrier Aircraft / maximum seats
AZ Prescott Ernest A. Love Field Denver (DEN) Los Angeles (LAX) SkyWest Airlines dba United Express Bombardier CRJ200 / 50
AR Hot Springs Memorial Field Airport Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) Memphis (MEM) Southern Airways Express Cessna 208 Caravan / 9 Pilatus PC-12 / 9
CA Merced Merced Regional Airport Los Angeles (LAX) Sacramento (SMF) Boutique Air Pilatus PC-12 / 8
IA Sioux City Sioux Gateway Airport Chicago-O'Hare (ORD)Denver (DEN) SkyWest dba United Express Bombardier CRJ200 / 50
ME Bar Harbor Hancock County–Bar Harbor Airport Boston (BOS) Cape Air Cessna 402C / 9 or Tecnam P2012 Traveller / 9
MI Muskegon Muskegon County Airport Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) SkyWest Airlines dba United Express Bombardier CRJ200 / 50
MT Butte Bert Mooney Airport Salt Lake City (SLC) SkyWest Airlines dba Delta Connection Bombardier CRJ200 / 50
NY Plattsburgh Plattsburgh International Airport Washington-Dulles (IAD) SkyWest Airlines dba United Express Bombardier CRJ200 / 50
UT Vernal Vernal Regional Airport Denver (DEN) SkyWest Airlines dba United Express Bombardier CRJ200 / 50
WV Greenbrier/White Sulphur Springs (Lewisburg) Greenbrier Valley Airport Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) Washington-Dulles (IAD) SkyWest Airlines dba United Express Bombardier CRJ200 / 50

The advantages of EAS

People in big cities often have to drive long distances to reach their airport, airport parking is expensive, airports are crowded, and TSA lines can be punishingly long. Contrast that with driving less than 10 minutes to reach your airport, paying minimal parking fees, avoiding crowds and long TSA lines, and being whisked to the nearest hub airport. That doesn't sound like such a bad deal.

Think of it this way: instead of being in "the boonies," you'd be right in the thick of things.


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