After months of often contentious debate, Congress has approved a major Federal Aviation Administration funding bill. Much of the disagreement centered on a program meant to help small rural airports. Rather than bicker over the cost of the Essential Air Service program year after year, Congress should reform it to direct the right kind of help to isolated airports.
Currently, more than 150 airports across the nation — four in Maine — get millions in federal subsidy money that helps them stay open. In Maine, as of May 2010, the Northern Maine Regional Airport in Presque Isle received $2.6 million a year; Hancock Country/Bar Harbor Airport and the Augusta State Airport each received $2.1 million; and Knox County Regional Airport in Owls Head received $1.5 million a year, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The money comes from a variety of taxes levied on airline passengers, cargo and aviation fuel.
Despite the subsidy, Colgan Air announced last week that it would seek to end service between Presque Isle and Boston and between Bar Harbor and Boston, because it is scaling back operations in Boston. Colgan can’t end service to these airports until a replacement carrier is found. Cape Air has expressed interest.
Rather than just handing out money, Scott Wardwell, the manager of the Presque Isle airport, suggests the government get more creative with its incentives. The aim should be to get airports off the subsidy after several years.
One way to do this is by giving coveted gate space to major airlines that commit to regional airports. Large airlines are eager to secure slots for their planes at crowded hub airports. In exchange for serving rural airports, they could be guaranteed sought-after slots. This would also solidify code-sharing agreements under which small regional carriers share a flight number with a large carrier. This allows passengers to, say, check in to a U.S. Airways flight in Presque Isle, even though the plane is not owned or operated by U.S. Airways, and easily connect to another U.S. Airways flight in Boston. It also helps keep prices low.
Another option could be to increase financial support — for a few years — to airports that make a compelling case that they can become self-sufficient. This money would go to improve services to attract more flyers. Such airports should serve a sizable market, use regional jets to hub airports and offer competitive prices.
Mr. Wardwell also argues for changing regulations so small carriers don’t have to meet every rule that large ones do. This will be a harder sell due to safety concerns. But, he makes the good point that people who decide not to fly out of Presque Isle due to the cost end up driving to Bangor, Portland, Manchester, N.H., or even Boston. Driving is much more dangerous than flying.
Reforms of this sort have been proposed and rejected in the past. But as federal spending is cut in coming years, finding a better way to support rural airports is worth attention.
An early version of this story requires correction. Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport has never offered flights to Plattsburg, N.Y. It offers daily flights to Logan Airport in Boston.