I Team 10 Investigation: Taxpayers subsidizing empty airline seats
Posted at: 08/12/2012 10:26 PM
| Updated at: 08/13/2012 12:06 AM
By: Brett Davidsen | WHEC.com
Millions of your tax dollars are subsidizing airline flights to small airports across the country. Problem is, many of the seats on those planes are empty. So is it a wasteful government program? I-Team 10 took a trip to one of those airports in the southern tier to find out.
It's 6:35 on a Monday morning in Jamestown, New York and United flight 4075 is arriving to pick up passengers and take them to Cleveland.
"So it's nice to have a drive to the airport that's 15 minutes or so, as opposed to going to Buffalo," said Jeremy Rothman as he was waiting for the plane to arrive.
That there is commercial airline service into this southern tier city of 32,000 people might come as a surprise to some. But Jamestown is one of more than one hundred small airports across the country (six in New York State) subsidized by the federal government through what is known as Essential Air Service.
The program was created in 1978 after the airlines were deregulated, fearing they would abandon the smaller airports. It was supposed to last a few years. But 34 years later, taxpayers are still footing the bill for flights that are often nearly empty.
Here are the numbers: last year rural airports got $200 million in federal tax dollars to help ensure commercial airline service. The chautauqua County Airport in Jamestown's share was 1.3 million.
On this particular day we counted a total of eight passengers boarding flight 4075.
"You gotta ask, does it make sense to be subsidizing airlines per passenger anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to up to $4000 each ticket," says Rep. Tom Reed (R-29th Congressional district)
Supporters of the program say it is vital to economic development and to keep existing businesses from leaving small communities like this one.
But some lawmakers are now pushing for an end to Essential Air Service funding.
"This is about the easiest choice that the House could possibly make -- to put an end to the so-called Essential air Services that lavishly subsidizes some of the least essential air services in the country," said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-California) who introduced an amendment in June to kill EAS funding.
Jamestown is about 75 miles from Buffalo's airport .... 60 from Erie, Pennsylvania,.and about the same from Bradford, Pennsylvania, where there is another small airport that relies on the same government funding.
According to US Department of Transportation data we uncovered, Jamestown serviced a total of 3475 passengers all last year. That's down from more than 11,000 in 2004.
"We have watched a slow steady decline from our numbers that are required for the EAS," says Chautauqua County Airport Manager Tim Dills.
He says they are trying to market the airport in other ways to draw more interest.
"It's difficult to convince folks we even have an airport let alone one that is serviced by the airlines here," Dills says.
Rothman, who flies weekly for business, says he's had occasions where he was the only passenger on board.
"So that was kind of nice -- like a private plane. You know, we left Cleveland and said here's your plane. Got on, closed the door right behind me and away we went," recounted Rothman.
Congressman Reed has voted twice to curtail funding for Essential air Service since joining the House of Representatives in 2010. But if he wins re-election in November with newly drawn district lines, Jamestown would become part of his constituency.
"In this time of fiscal crisis, $16 trillion in national debt, what we have to focus on is how do we make you the strongest airport rather than subsidize the airlines."
Reed says the solution needs to come from the private sector, adding he's not in favor of turning his back on Jamestown's airport, but rather, looking at ways to grow the community and create a demand so the airlines can stand on their own.
In order for Jamestown to maintain its funding, it must average 10 passengers per day. With four daily flights, it's currently averaging about 11.
Dills fears if the funding is cut commercial airline service here would likely fly off into the sunset.
"I would not be in a position to make that decision but it would not surprise me a bit if they just discontinued," he said.
One of the requirements to be an Essential Air service airport is you must be at least 70 miles from a major or medium sized airport. As we mentioned, Buffalo is about 75 miles. Some house republicans have pushed to expand that distance, making fewer airports eligible for that funding.
In fighting to keep Jamestown on the list, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) noted that western New York's winters can be ferocious, thus making it more difficult for travelers to reach Buffalo's airport.