Air travel in Rural America met with more challenges than ever

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of Rural Insights or its members.

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For nearly 100 years, people have taken to the air as a way to travel.

In 1933, United Airlines made a purchase of 60 Boeing 247 aircraft. This aircraft was able to carry 10 passengers and cruised at 155 miles per hour, allowing people to take to the air as an alternate form of travel.

America and the world embraced air travel, granting people another option to navigate the globe. Over the past several decades, Americans have continued to be more mobile than ever before. As people’s lives become busier, many find air travel as one of the most convenient methods.

As air travel developed within the United States, air carriers faced several challenges, starting with flight routes–where to fly and how often. With such a large expanse, carriers, working closely with the federal government, needed to develop a rational flight route network. 

Simplicity was at the foundation of the design. The need to feed passengers from surrounding rural areas to the larger more populated cities was paramount. 

As the airlines and airports continued to evolve, smaller, more rural sectors of the country began to develop airports to support air carrier operations, and with that, the airlines began to see the benefit of funneling the rural travelers into the larger cities to support the growing infrastructure. 

This system referred to the Hub and Spoke system, and is still used by the majority of the airlines today. 

Prior to 1978, the government regulated all of the routes the airlines flew, and competition within those routes was limited. Air carriers’ operating certificates required them to provide two daily round trips on each point on their certificate, and the cost for flights were very expensive. Because of this, the government regulated the prices to insure the air carriers always made enough money to continue to operate.

A flight from Los Angeles to Boston may cost upward of over $4,000 in today’s dollars in comparison to the flight today costing around $500. 

In 1978, the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA) passed, giving the airlines almost total freedom to choose what markets they wished to service. With deregulation, the Department of Transportation put into place the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, designed to guarantee small communities across the U.S. would maintain a minimum level of air service. 

This was due to many of the smaller communities not having enough passenger traffic to support the service. The original list of communities eligible for government subsidize after deregulation was approximately 620 communities; currently there are approximately 110 communities within the continental U.S.

Without the subsidies, these communities would not have air service.

The EAS generally provides two daily round trip flights to a large- or medium-hub airport, with some communities receiving service with smaller nine-seat aircraft with more frequency. The cost of the entire EAS program has continued to rise, and has been reported to have almost tripled since the early 2000s to almost $300 million per year. In the early 2000s the EAS program was changed in several ways, one of the major changes being that no new airports will be allowed into the program.

Today, the hub and spoke style network relies on smaller regional airlines to provide flights to and from the spoke airports while feeding the larger hubs, allowing the major carriers to utilize larger aircraft for the longer, more frequently operated flights.

As expected with this system, the larger airports experience the most choices of destinations and frequency of flights, while the outlying smaller communities are provided limited flight options, less frequency of flight options, and in many cases significantly higher costs.

More recently, when economies fluctuate, airlines in most cases respond rather quickly with either adding or reducing flights to meet the demand. As with shrinking economies, some communities may be faced with limited options when these changes occur: either lose air service or provide a subsidy for the flights.

As airlines push for cost savings and limit complexity to their operations, rural America continues to face an ever-changing landscape of air carrier air service. Airlines merge, costs continue to rise, and changing regulations are structured to improve safety, but in many cases limit smaller communities with rising operating costs.

With the evolution of the industry, the primary (major) air carriers provide the service to the larger airports while utilizing regional airlines to provide air service to the smaller communities. 

These regional carriers most often utilize 50-seat regional jet (RJ) aircraft. These aircraft have been in the system for many years, and are beginning to be phased out of service due to the ever-rising cost to maintain and operate.

The industry has begun to schedule some markets with the next generation RJ. These new aircraft are larger and more efficient than their predecessors, but with the change some markets may be unable to support the aircraft size and may experience air service changes.

They may need to rethink what type of service they may be offered.

With these challenges, many smaller communities may see the loss of air service if their economy is unable to provide the passengers, unless they are part of the EAS program. But for many communities, EAS is not an option.

With EAS and federal subsidies continuing to be provided to the eligible airports, this creates a disadvantage for any airport that may operate in the same region that is not eligible for EAS funding. This places non-EAS airports in competition with the federal government while competing for passengers.

In the Upper Peninsula, there are six commercial airports, all bidding for a finite number of passengers. This competitive environment is only complicated when five of the six airports are part of the EAS program, allowing them to provide a subsidy to maintain air service with Marquette being the only community not provided the federal subsidy to ensure continued air carrier service.

Air travel across rural America continues to become more complicated than ever before with limited resources, costly operations, and a very profit-driven industry.

As this industry navigates different hurdles, small communities may need to make hard decisions on just how valuable air service is to them.

 

References:

transportation.gov/office-policy/aviation

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Duane DuRay

Duane DuRay has been the Airport Manager at Sawyer International Airport for nearly eight years. Previously, he was Airport Manager for the Gogebic/Iron County Airport. DuRay graduated from the Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in 1990. In 2019, DuRay was named "Airport Manager of the Year" by the Michigan Association of Airport Executives.

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