The Essential Air Service program, whereby airline passenger service to small, rural underserved communities is subsidized is, in a word, “essential.” Critics of the long-established and successful subsidy tend to manipulate statistics, focus on anecdotal tales that bolster their opposition, and promote the fiction that taxpayer dollars pay for EAS. In short, the critics are less than honest.
In North Dakota, Devils Lake and Jamestown benefit from the EAS in a cooperative passenger air service route that uses regularly scheduled flights in and out of both cities. The flights connect to the big hub airports. Other than disruptions because of changes in carriers, EAS has worked well for both cities. Passenger use has averaged about 55 percent of aircraft capacity, a clear indication airline passenger service is essential to the traveling public and the economies of both cities.
The most recent assault on air travelers from Devils Lake and Jamestown came from a CBS news report. After a single flight on a Skywest/United jet with 50 seats that were not all filled, the CBS crew concluded the air service was woefully underused, and therefore not worthy of the EAS subsidy. It’s curious how the reporter made such a sweeping judgment after one flight at a time when air travel was down.
Making matters worse for Devils Lake and Jamestown, Grand Forks media jumped on the rickety bandwagon, in the form of a Grand Forks Herald editorial, which essentially swallowed whole the CBS report and took after the EAS program, being careful not to call for its elimination but for “reform.” That’s code for making the program so unworkable that passengers who now board a plane in Devils Lake would go to — you guessed it — the Grand Forks airport.
Regarding the canard that EAS is funded by taxpayer dollars: The dollars come from several sources, none of which is directly from the U.S. Treasury. They include user aviation fees, overflight fees on foreign carriers and from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund.
The record shows that when the airports at Devils Lake and Jamestown use a larger plane on a reliable schedule, seats fill up. All those communities ask is that air service remains in the mix of transportation options in order to keep their economies growing. When a large regional city goes selfish and parochial in an attempt, however subtle, to undermine a small city’s air service, the anger and resentment are justified. Such tactics, masquerading as a reasonable call for EAS reform, can harm North Dakota’s small cities.