Essential Air Connection

Posted Aug. 23, 2009, at 6:21 p.m.

At a time when airlines are reducing flights out of Bangor, Congress is poised to approve a huge increase in spending on a program meant to help small airports. Congress’ action, rather than helping people in rural areas may actually be harming them by undercutting midsize airports like Bangor’s.

On July 31, Continental Airlines stopped serving Bangor International Airport. The airline had offered two flights a day from the city to Newark, N.J. The airline also cut service to three other regional airports and reduced flights at eight others, citing financial reasons and the congestion of airspace in the New York City region.

The next week, Delta Air Lines informed BIA that as of Dec. 1, it would stop its twice-daily Bangor-to-Boston service because those flights are no longer profitable. Delta has operated two 50-passenger planes between the cities for about two years. Before that, a Delta subsidiary offered multiple daily flights on 19-passenger planes from Bangor to Boston. Delta will continue to offer daily flights from BIA to Detroit and JFK International Airport in New York.

Last year, Delta’s Bangor-to-Boston flights were about 80 percent full. For the first four months of this year it was 65 percent.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering a huge increase in subsidies for a federal program aimed at ensuring air service to rural areas, although many of the flights from the subsidized airports have only a handful of passengers.

According to a recent Associated Press report, Ely, Nev., in Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s state, gets a $4,500 per passenger subsidy. Just 414 people — or 0.7 passengers per flight — flew out of Ely last year.

In Maine, just 10 people a day — with a per-leg subsidy of $318 — fly out of Augusta, according to the AP. Airports in Bar Harbor, Rockland and Presque Isle also get a subsidy from the Essential Air Service Program.

The program was started by Congress in 1978, as part of the airline industry deregulation, to ensure passengers in small cities had access to air travel.

Late last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $175 million for the program, a $39 million increase from current funding. Before moving ahead with this increase, Congress must ensure the program is fulfilling its mission while not hurting midsize regional airports like Bangor’s.

“The Essential Air Service program — half of it is essential, the other half is just a boondoggle, just a giant waste of money,” aviation consultant Michael Boyd of Boyd Group Intl. told the AP.

Offering larger subsidies to airports that really are isolated, with the proviso that carriers keep fares in line with nearby larger airports, would be a good test. If such service was not profitable in a couple years, it would be reconsidered.

Sorting the essential from the boondoggle is better than simply putting a lot more money into a program that may not be working.

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