April 08, 2020


A recent report on New England’s air traffic found that midsize airports, like Bangor’s, play an important role in connecting local residents to the national flight network while easing congestion at Boston’s Logan Airport. This conclusion, which likely also applies to other regions, should prompt Congress to rethink Essential Air Service, which takes passengers away from regional airports and increases traffic at hubs such as Logan.

The program was started by Congress in 1978, as part of the airline industry deregulation, to ensure that travelers in small cities had access to air travel. It provides subsidies to 115 small airports at a cost of about $110 million a year.

Four airports in Maine – Augusta-Waterville, Bar Harbor, Presque Isle-Houlton and Rockland – each receive subsidies of about $1 million a year. The money is small compared with the unintended consequences of the program. The airports in Maine and Vermont covered by the program deliver passengers to Logan, an airport so congested that local leaders considered building a second airport in the 1990s, while taking them away from midsized airports.

A report released this week by the New England Airport Coalition found a regional approach to air traffic planning that supports surrounding airports, such as Manchester, N.H., and Portland, and has eased the strain on Logan. Between 1996 and 1999, air traffic in New England increased by 6.3 million passengers, with 76 percent of the increase at regional airports, allowing them to add carriers and flights. The report predicts the number of passengers using the region’s airport is likely to double by 2020. Bangor’s growth is predicted to outpace Logan’s.

This regional approach, however, is undermined by Essential Air Service.

Subsidizing airports in Bar Harbor and Rutland, Vt., so passengers can fly to Boston while bypassing Bangor and Burlington prevents these larger airports from being able to add flights, perhaps to new destinations, giving passengers greater access to the national airline system. This, in turn would help regional economies because businesses and new residents would have better connections to the rest of the country and world. It would also ease the congestion at Logan Airport.

According to an analysis by The New York Times, many of the airports covered by Essential Air Service average only a handful of passengers a day, costing taxpayers up to $677 in subsidies per one-way ticket. The airport in Pueblo, Colo., for example, averages just five passengers a day. Area residents have likely concluded that it makes more sense to drive 40 miles to Colorado Springs where they can connect to flights across the country rather than flying from Pueblo to Denver, before connecting.

The airport in Presque Isle, however, attracts an average of 53 passengers a day, at a subsidy of $34 per one-way ticket, according to the Times. Travelers have reasonably concluded that flying from Presque Isle is more efficient than driving to Bangor, a distance of 163 miles.

Supporting small airports that demonstrably serve a need makes sense. Financing those that unnecessarily undercut regional airports, which play an increasingly important economic and transportation role, does not.

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