As commercial air travel plummeted in recent months amid pandemic lockdowns and closings, the few people who did venture forth faced delays, cancellations and confusing social distancing messages.
But some travelers have had far fewer disruptions. They were flying on regional carriers to small airports in far-flung places like the Alaskan fishing village Cordova and tourist destinations like Bar Harbor, Me., and Greenbrier, W.Va.
Those communities are among about 170 nationwide that qualify for subsidies and service through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s essential air service.
The pandemic has been especially cruel to the airline industry. The major commercial carriers started cutting service in mid-March in the face of a steep decline in bookings — curtailing their level of service by as much as 90 percent at one point. But essential air service communities didn’t begin to see cuts until late April, when the Department of Transportation said service could be reduced by as much as 50 percent as long as carriers maintain one flight a day, six days a week. Even then, some communities didn’t see that much of a drop.
The program’s roots go back to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which eliminated government control of fares and routes. It led to lower airfares and more frequent flights from larger airports, but some rural areas were left out because carriers deemed it too expensive to provide service to them. “Communities became scared and said, ‘We can’t be left without air service,’” said Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco. “‘Our towns will die and people will suffer.’”
Essential air service bridged that urban-rural divide, currently providing federal subsidies of $200 per passenger or less to regional airlines to continue service in the continental United States.
Eligible communities must be more than 70 miles from the nearest large or medium-size hub airport and guarantee 10 or more passengers each day, usually to those hubs. In addition, carriers participating in the program agree to provide at least two round trips a day. Their planes are small, ranging from nine-seat turboprop planes to 50-seat jets.
The Federal Aviation Administration finances the program with fees from foreign aircraft that fly over but do not land in the United States and by collecting excise taxes on passengers, cargo and fuel. In a recent study, the Government Accountability Office found the number of the number of places getting the aid has remained constant over the last decade, while spending increased to $277 million in the fiscal year 2018 from $161 million in fiscal year 2010, partly because of increased labor costs.
The transportation department solicits bids from carriers to provide subsidized service from a specific airport in an eligible community; contracts are renewed every two to five years, depending on location. But a contract doesn’t guarantee a carrier profit. “Bidding on a contract in lieu of having an aircraft sit idle may prove to be a better financial decision for the carrier,” said William S. Swelbar, a research engineer at the International Center for Air Transportation at MIT.
One area generally maintaining its flight schedule is the Adirondacks-Saranac Lake-Lake Placid area.
Robert Curry lives in Saranac Lake year-round and until May 1, when he went on a sabbatical, directed clinical operations at a biopharmaceutical company in Cambridge, Mass. Before his employer limited travel because of the pandemic, he commuted to Boston on a subsidized Hyannis Air Service plane operating as Cape Air each month. The flight takes about 75 minutes; the drive, more than five hours.
Cape Air provides essential air service from Adirondack Regional Airport, which is 10 minutes from his house, and he can quickly clear the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint and board.
The plane seats nine. Mr. Curry paid less than $250 round trip, reimbursed by his company, and said he was sometimes the only passenger.
The flights make it possible for Mr. Curry to maintain his quality of life. He said other local residents use the flights to receive medical care at Boston-area hospitals.
Each contract renewal is competitive. Two years ago, five carriers challenged U.S. Peninsula Airways operating as PenAir to fly from Plattsburgh International Airport in New York, a former Air Force base developed as a secondary airport to Montreal, one hour north. PenAir’s service to Boston was scrapped, and SkyWest Airlines, branded as United Express, was awarded a contract to fly 50-passenger jets to Dulles International Airport outside Washington D.C., a route with more extensive connections.
William Owens, the area’s former congressman, used to commute to Washington-Reagan National Airport from Vermont’s Burlington International Airport, the only service available at the time. His 42-mile, 75-minute commute to the airport began with a ferry ride across Lake Champlain.
If community support evaporates, routes can be altered or eliminated, making travel difficult for people like Faith Wilson, the national sales manager in Decatur, Ill., for a maintenance product distributor. Before the pandemic, she flew twice a month, usually out of Decatur Airport to St. Louis, a 50-minute flight; the drive is about two hours..
Cape Air served Decatur, population 71,000, with nine-passenger planes flying to Chicago O’Hare International Airport and St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
When the transportation department received multiple bids for the contract renewal in March, the community wanted SkyWest. The carrier, operating as United Express, proposed flying a 50-seat jet, including 12 flights a week each about one hour in length from Decatur to O’Hare; Cape Air’s nine-seaters made the trip in an hour and 20 minutes.
Nicole Batemen, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Decatur and Macon County, a region that includes the headquarters of ADM, the multinational agricultural processor, and a Caterpillar equipment plant, said Cape Air’s planes were too small. Businesses interested in touring the area “couldn’t fit all of the delegation on one plane,” she said.
SkyWest Airlines won the contract for Decatur, but it doesn’t fly from there to St. Louis — Ms. Wilson’s frequent destination and a connection to her preferred carrier, Southwest Airlines, when she’s headed to other cities. “They took away my ability to fly Southwest,” she said.
Once she resumes traveling for business, Ms. Wilson is considering making the two-hour drive to St. Louis.