Taxpayer Dollars Pay For Empty Airline Seats

Federal Essential Air Service Program Subsidizing Small Airports

At a time when budgets are tight all across the nation, a federal program is spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on empty airline seats, including flights right here in Colorado.

The Scripps National Investigative Team took a closer look at the Essential Air Service program.

The Essential Air Service helps subsidize small airports. It was created in 1978 out of fear the larger airlines would abandon smaller airports during deregulation. The program was only supposed to last a few years, but 34 years later it's still being paid for by taxpayers.

"This is absolutely outrageous," said Florida Congressman John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation Committee which oversees the Air Service. "You know we're running $17 trillion in deficit."

Our investigation exposed one flight between Baltimore and Hagerstown, Maryland – just about 75 miles apart - was so sparse the captain allowed the only other passenger who wasn’t our producer to sit in the co-pilot's seat. Some seats remained folded down for the round trip.

Two other flights between Baltimore and Hagerstown had just one other person on board and eight empty seats. A 19-seat plane from Cleveland to Dubois, Pennsylvania, about 180 miles east, had just one passenger as well.

Great Lakes Uses Subsidy To Fly To 3 Colorado Airports

In Colorado, Great Lakes Airlines received subsidies to provide service to Alamosa, Cortez and Pueblo in 2010.

A records check, found the subsidy for service to San Luis Valley Regional/Bergman Field in Alamosa in 2010 was $1.85 million. In 2011, the load factor for flights into Alamosa ranged from as low as 29.1 to 53.85. The official definition of "load factor" is miles a passenger has been in a seat in proportion to the miles the seat was empty.

The subsidy for Cortez service was nearly $1.3 million in 2010. The load factor for Cortez Municipal Airport was 31.72 to 54.24 in 2011.

And the subsidy for Pueblo airport was also nearly $1.3 million. The load factor for Pueblo Municipal Airport in 2011 ranged from 62 to 83.66.

"It is very essential for their economic growth to have that service," said Mary Osborne, spokeswoman for Great Lakes Airlines. "If the government wasn’t there to help us out, there would not be air service into those communities."

Tom Schatz, president of the Washington-based group Citizens Against Government Waste said the Essential Air Service is non-essential. "Members of Congress like to have airports. They like the subsidies. It's a chance to show that they are spending money on behalf of their constituents," he added.

There are more than 100 subsidized flight routes across the country. In 2010, Congress allocated $200 million for the Essential Air Service program.

"It's an economic driver within those communities to have the ability to bring in outside business into rural areas of the country," said Brian Sowa of the lobbying group Rural Air Service Alliance. Sowa said flights are crucial for the economic development of small-town America.

Yet, Mica said: "It’s gotta stop. The taxpayers can't afford it."

To see how much taxpayers are paying for EAS flights each year by airport, visit our database.

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