While COVID-19 is having a deep impact on some of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States, such as New York, Seattle and San Francisco, pockets of the virus have already overwhelmed rural communities as well.
More than 1,000 rural communities have already been affected by this crisis, and this is exacerbated by the fact that over 11 million Americans live in a county that does not have a hospital, and an additional 18 million live in a county with a hospital but no intensive care unit.
Many of these counties have higher numbers of senior citizens than the national average, and nearly half of the rural hospitals in the U.S. are unprofitable.
Rural communities are often at a disadvantage, and transportation and access is often limited. This has profound implications for these communities, particularly now. To give a sense, there are more than 5,000 public-use airports in towns across the country, yet the majority of airline traffic goes through 30 of them.
Even before COVID-19, general aviation and smaller airports were often the only access for these communities, and now the impact is even greater. For example, RavnAir Group, a rural carrier in Alaska, has ended service and is filing for bankruptcy. In Alaska, 82% of communities are not connected to the road system and rely solely on aviation and marine transportation to connect with the outside world.
In these and many other cases, general aviation is the only resource for connecting small businesses and rural communities and businesses to the tools and services they need. They make it possible for doctors to visit patients in rural areas, help communities to access emergency care, fight fires, conduct search and rescue and bring in supplies in times of natural disaster. And, this industry supports critical jobs for our communities, supporting $247 billion per year and more than 1.1 million American jobs.
During this current pandemic, general aviation has helped to transport vitally needed supplies, such as face masks, ventilators and test kits, as well as medical staff.
In Colorado, Angel Flight West has teamed up with the Colorado Hospital Association to deliver personal protection equipment and medical supplies directly to the rural hospitals that need them.
Angel Flight Soars is helping expedite COVID-19 testing by delivering patient samples from rural communities in Mississippi, Georgia and North Carolina to labs in Nashville, Tennessee, and Charlotte, North Carolina.
The benefit of general aviation in small communities and rural industries is perhaps most clearly illustrated in agriculture and food production. The food and agriculture industries in the United States directly employ more than 22.7 million people, with a combined payroll of $729 billion. In order to continue this production to feed America, particularly with the vast challenges currently facing the agricultural sector, general aviation and our network of smaller, local airports and airstrips are more important than ever.
For example, one way that general aviation and these airports support agriculture is through aerial application, or crop dusting. Aircraft are used to disperse seeds or apply fertilizer or crop protection products. For many of the staple crops of the United States, including corn, wheat, soybeans and potatoes, aerial application raises productivity by as much as 25% to 30%.
In addition, for example, last season in Nebraska after record flooding, fertilizer was applied by air to corn fields. Rice, which is grown in standing water, relies almost exclusively on aircraft to deliver fertilizer and crop protection products to fight pest or fungal infestation.
Yet these smaller airports and aircraft operators are taking a huge hit right now. Overall, general aviation flights in the first week of April were down a full 73% when compared to the same period in 2019.
Members of Congress have shown great leadership by supporting funding for airports and suspending fuel taxes for commercial general aviation operators, but we will need to make sure this relief is extended to these smaller operators as well and that we continue to support this infrastructure.
General aviation and our network of local airports are often overlooked as a vital part of our infrastructure, but they will be key for mobility, supply and food distribution and agriculture as our economy and rural communities in particular look to get back on their feet.
Niel Ritchie is a senior adviser at the Main Street Project.