Target 11 investigates essential air service

Updated:

PITTSBURGH - Every year, millions of tax dollars are spent flying empty planes into small rural airports. It's a program that begin in the late 1970s during the deregulation of the airline industry. The essential air service program provides federal subsidies to guarantee commercial air service to rural areas.

Target 11 wanted to see just how essential the service is. So Investigator Rick Earle and Photographer Ward Hobbs purchased two round -trip tickets from Cleveland airport to the Venango County airport in Franklin, Pennsylvania.

Earle and Hobbs boarded the small 19-seat plane in Cleveland with only a handful of passengers. Most of the seats were empty. Only seven passengers were on the plane, including Hobbs and Earle.

"It's very convenient. Instead of going to the big airports we get on the community service and fly into Cleveland and then out of here," said Paul Krumm, who relies on the commuter service.

By car, Franklin is 2 hours and 15 minutes. But by plane, it's less than 30 minutes.

Earle and Hobbs got off in Franklin but only one other passenger left the plane. The rest stayed on the flight headed to Dubois, Pa.

There were fewer people on the return flight. Hobbs and Earle were the only two who got on in Franklin. Three passengers were already on board, but two appeared to be airline employees.

"When they are running with only one passenger and sometimes even none at certain points that's a warning signal that we need to reevaluate the expenditure," said Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union based in Washington D.C.

Critics like Sepp contend that the Federal Aviation Administration could use the money on more pressing needs like overhauling the antiquated air traffic control system.

Right now, 163 airports receive $214 million dollars from the essential air service subsidy. Six airports in Pennsylvania -- Lancaster, Johnstown, Bradford, Dubois, Franklin, and Altoona -- get the money to subsidize commercial airline service.

Among those airports, Franklin has the fewest daily passengers, 5.4. And based on the subsidy that translates into a federal subsidy of about $400 per passenger.

Earle asked U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, D-Bellefonte, if essential air service is still essential.

"I think it is. I believe it is," said Thompson, who has three airports in his district that rely on essential air service. Thompson told Earle that the total subsidy is less than the federal government spends at some major airports, and he believes it's critical to luring industry and jobs to many rural communities.

"They look at the ability to get in and out of those areas, and having an airport is incredibly important resource and asset," said Thompson.

But Target 11 discovered that this asset comes with a pricey ticket. Earle's round -trip ticket from Cleveland to Franklin was $234. Earle crunched some numbers and discovered a round trip ticket from Franklin to Charlotte North Carolina, via Cleveland was $605. But Earle discovered that a 95-minute drive to Pittsburgh International to catch a flight to Charlotte only costs $273 round trip.

Still passengers Earle spoke with said it's a service that's well worth it.

"I like it, cause it would be like a three hours drive for me to go to Pittsburgh. So it's the convenience? Yes definitely," said Shannon Hansen, who's used the service from Dubois several times.

The subsidy allows the airlines to operate at a 5 percent profit margin.

Target 11 discovered that beginning next year there will be some tighter restrictions in place. Airports with less than 10 passengers a day won't be eligible for the essential air service funding.

Target 11 will continue to monitor these developments and let you know what that means for the airports in our area.