THE AVENUE JULY 22, 2011
with Louis Liss
Delta is cutting service to 24 small town airports in the south, upper Midwest, and plains. You probably haven’t heard of any of them, but not because hip people are living there converting warehouses into lofts. Rather, these are extremely small towns and cities outside of the 100 largest metro areas where the airline says it can no longer afford to operate connecting service to larger hubs. Routes to sixteen of these airports are funded under the Essential Air Service Act (EAS), an effort post-airline deregulation to continue small town air service when market demand couldn’t ensure profitability.
While it’s important to maintain an equitable transportation network for all Americans, it’s also important to realize that the vast majority of air travel is within the 100 largest metros, with an even larger majority in a quarter of those places. Moreover, the growth of short distance air travel is choking our largest hubs with delays and congestion, which costs everybody time, fuel, and money. According to a New York Times article, Delta is looking to retire its smaller aircraft, which are comparatively fuel inefficient. So these small town flights don’t just clog our system--they pollute our environment at a faster clip, too.
Airlines are not the only groups noticing the problem. GAO consistently recommends major modifications to the program, which includes implementing modal alternatives. For example, buses could shuttle people from smaller towns to the closest major airports, which could save on the high fuel costs of low-capacity, short-haul air travel. Perhaps this could inspire a more intermodal transportation system that better integrates the roads, rails, and skies; already, booking services like hipmunk.com incorporate some Amtrak data into air travel search results. Many of the EAS airports are, in fact, within a couple hundred miles of larger metropolitan areas--see our map--and express bus service is already growing in popularity.
We know EAS is a critical part of our never-ending FAA extension battle and respect that many in Congress want to maintain rural air service. But in these times of major cost-cutting, now is the time revisit a policy that simply helps too few Americans at the expense of other travelers--especially when alternatives exist.