Flights from Nowhere

Why does a flight from Ely, Nevada, to Denver cost taxpayers $3,720?


As a resident of Illinois, I'd never had any particular desire to fly from McCook, Nebraska, to Denver. But lately, I've been looking for an opportunity. Turns out the federal government is willing to pay me a handsome fee to do it.

Oh, I wouldn't get the cash directly. But the Department of Transportation provides more than $2 million to subsidize that particular route, which works out to about $1,000 for every passenger. My fare, meanwhile, would be less than $150.

I could get an even bigger hand on the hop from Lewistown, Montana, to Billings—$1,343. But if I'm feeling the need for indulgence, there is nothing to beat the flight from Ely, Nevada, to Denver, for which Washington will kick in $3,720. For that sum, of course, it could buy me a perfectly functional used car.

These extravagances are part of the Essential Air Service initiative, which is part of the reason for the recent congressional impasse over a bill to keep the Federal Aviation Administration operating.

The House voted to trim $16 million from this $200 million program by eliminating service to 13 places—which, in an era of fiscal shortages, sounds reasonable enough. But the Senate balked and eventually passed the bill on the understanding that the administration could continue the service to those towns. The feeling of many senators is that it's essential to their survival.

Really? Among the towns that would lose funding is Athens, Georgia., the bustling site of the University of Georgia, which will not blow away if people have to drive or take the bus to Atlanta instead of flying those 82 miles. Another is Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which boasts a low unemployment rate and easy proximity to the Harrisburg airport, 28 miles away. 

But the program does have real value, as an illustration of the pathology of Washington policymaking. Essential Air Service was created in 1978 as a temporary measure to assure commercial flights to smaller towns after the deregulation of the airline industry. 

The program has lasted three times longer than its original 10-year limit, even as transportation options have improved. The number of small towns served by airlines actually rose after deregulation.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted in 2009 that it "loses potential passengers and fare revenue when low fares or more convenient air service schedules at nearby larger airports encourage passengers to bypass EAS service at their local airport." 

That's one reason the demand for these trips is modest. The Lewiston-to-Billings leg normally attracts two people a day. The average subsidized flight in 2008, said GAO, was only 37 percent full, compared to 80 percent on the typical commercial flight. 

The rationale for the program is hard to grasp, given that there are less insane options. Instead of laying out $679 for each passenger flying from Decatur, Illinois, to St. Louis, the federal government could spend $40 on a bus ticket.

Even some of the beneficiaries find it all a bit much. Mike Olson, executive director of the Central Nebraska Regional Airport in Grand Island, told the Omaha World-Herald, "It's a waste of fuel, a waste of a lot of taxpayer dollars to fly one or two people, or three people, at most a handful a day."
But the program survives because most states get some aid and every state has two senators, who usually hang on to every federal dollar as if it were a Super Bowl ticket.

Nor do politicians like to tell these communities the obvious facts of life. Small towns are ideal if you have an aversion to crime, congestion, noise, high rents, and scarce parking. But if good travel connections are your priority, maybe you should live elsewhere.

The Essential Air Service program benefits enormously from the fact that, on the galactic scale of the federal budget, it amounts to space debris. Cut off the 150 communities subsidized by the program, and Congress would hear plenty of squawking, and for what? To save $200 million, which is hardly enough to notice in an age of trillion-dollar deficits. 

That's the problem with reducing the federal budget. You can't cut the big stuff because it's too important. And you can't cut the small stuff because it's not worth the bother.

So as a rule, nothing shrinks and nothing disappears. In Washington, problems come and go, but solutions are forever.


NEXT: Safety Hazard

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    1. Be an interactive working sheriff involved in day-to-day operations (the public will know me).

      Ah, in the biblical sense I suppose.

      1. The image you have foisted upon the public is hideous.

  1. I know a lot of people in the Athens, GA, area none of them have ever used the Athens Airport. Shut those subsidies down.

  2. People have a human right to fly to wherever they want to, I thought libertarians were for that. Taking away that route will hinder the right of movement.

    1. As long as they’re paying for it themselves, I don’t care if they fly out of your ass.

      1. Tony would like that.

        1. Just in case this isn’t a Tony spoof… please point out the “right to fly wherever they want to”.

          Use this link:

          Get busy!

    2. I was going to say Tony isn’t stupid enough for this kind of shit, but I’m starting to doubt it.

    3. People also have the right to drive wherever they want. I am sure you agree. So you won’t mind if I “borrow” your car for a week or two so I can drive across the country.

      1. Liberals will fight for the right to share the property of others, but never will they share their own.

        1. MATT DAMON!!

    4. Goes to show you that despite hanging around this place, you still haven’t understood a damn thing about libertarianism.

      Just one gross error out of many: there is no such thing as a “human right to fly to where ever someone wants”, even in libertarianism.

      For instance, someone does not have a right to fly ONTO someone else’s private property without consent.
      Someone does not have a right to fly WITH someone else’s property without consent.
      This excludes both flying with the use of anything that is subsidized by the government, as well as “right of movement” in absolute terms.

      Further more, in order for someone to fly, someone else must provide the plane, unless everyone who claims a right to fly builds or buys his own plain. One cannot have a “right” to anything, if it depends on the labor of another to provide it. Giving such a right to one, would be tantamount to slavery of another, otherwise the “right” would mean nothing since it would forever be dependent on someone else’s voluntary provision of the means.

      It is for the same reason that, despite what some libertarians think, there is no such thing as “open borders” or “freedom of movement” between nations within libertarianism principles. Because that would presume that all owners of private property used and/or traversed by such “free” movement have granted implicit consent ahead of time for people to do so, which obviously is not the case, to put it very mildly.

      1. You are operating under the assumption that Chony WANTS to understand a damn thing about libertarianism.

        1. Well, he’ll claim he understands it and that he even thinks some of us are “worth saving” since we bought into some false dogma perpetuated by nefarious characters like the Koch brothers and such. But the fact is when he gets his way, we’ll be the first ones flayed in the public square as his chosen leaders shake hands with the evil republicans…(Sorry… I’ve been reading A Dance of Dragons where the act of flaying is discussed 100000 times).

          1. Who are these “Koch brothers” anyway?

            I keep hearing about them, but no libertarian i’ve ever communicated with has ever told me: “If it weren’t for the Koch’s, i’d still be a liberal/neocon”.

            Ron Paul, Ayn Rand, Von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman, sure.
            The Koch Brothers? Sorry, don’t recall it.

            Really, liberals need to get over this obsession with the Kochs. They’re completely inconsequential in the “movement”, and are regarded by a multitude of libertarians as no more than LINO’s.

            It’s like saying liberals need George Soros to think the way they do.

            1. I’m completely with you there Trident. As I understand it, the Kochs throw (or so I’m told by my “friends” that would like to see me thrown in prison for not voting for Obama) around a lot of money to potentially dupe governments into implementing Libertarian friendly policies, which really benefit their business ventures and not necessarily all competing business ventures, which is therefore, by definition, not very libertarian.

              Liberals latch onto the Kochs because its easier to disarm us when we are associated with “monocle-wearing-dollar-sign-bag-brandishing tycoons” than accomplished philosoper-economists like Mises and Rothbard. Of course, Rand, Paul, and Friedman can be considered hypocrites from the pure L standpoint, but they were/are better spokesman than anything the standard neo-con Republicans have/will shit out (Paul Ryan, Michelle Bachmann, and even the worshipped Ronald Reagan).

              1. No, what we enjoy the most about watching a bunch of delusional corporate fellators taking piles of money from the Kochs is that every inherited dime of that cash came from the elder Koch refining oil for Josef Stalin.


                Which means that every time you run your moronic yappers here calling people statists and communists for daring to point out how fucking stupid, authoritarian and anti-democratic you are, you’re doing so on a mass murdering dictator’s dime, really.

                Man, that’s funny. That’s poetically funny.

                1. Orel, did you read the whole link?? He invented a process of cracking gasoline from oil which helped small, independent oil companies. The larger companies then sued him to the point he had to leave the US. So yeah,he went to the Soviet Union, but he came to despise the Soviet system, something you failed to mention when you flapped your yapper. 🙂

                  1. You’re right. I did not mention how the Fred Koch story proves conclusively that “free market”-eers will happily do billions in business with communist mass murderers.

                    Mainly because that much is fucking obvious to everybody over the age of ten. Also, it’s not very funny.

                    The funny part is when that blood money earned from industrializing a murderous dictatorship is used a generation later to fund a “free market” foundation dedicated to wiping out American democracy, denying the existence of a public interest and promoting corporate oligarchy.

                    Ha ha.

                    1. It’s a good thing that no leftists have ever cozied up to communists, right? Down with the capitalists and free markets! Let us empower the ruling class to promote the public welfare.

                    2. Great. Orel just had to crawl out of Max’s mom’s basement closet and start posting bullshit again.

    5. Where’s the real Tony? This one isn’t even trying…

      1. Look up this Tony’s as and you will find the real Toni

    6. The moniker “Tony” is the best troll bait there is for this site.

      1. Most trolls are horribly inadequate when it comes to mimicing Tony, though. They lack a certain, je ne sais quoi…

  3. I don’t support this program but in my view there are much bigger and more important fish to fry.

    If this were the worst thing the government ever did we wouldn’t be in the sinkhole we are in. I would much rather focus on ending every government program that begins with the two words “War on ….”.

    We should shut down our military bases in Europe too … how about THOSE flights to nowhere.

    1. I think the point of the article is: If we can’t even kill this POS, what chance do we have of cutting the big stuff?

      1. Perhaps. There is just so much going on right now I sometimes get frustrated by articles that point out the very very very obvious (except apparently to Tony above).

        1. There are quite alot of Tony’s and even more LW’s.

          Our government is run by idiots and griefers.

          1. “Our government is run by idiots and griefers.”
            That were elected by idiots and griefers.

            1. ^^^This

              I dont blame the politicians as much as the voters, at least most voters. The pols are just responding to incentives. People really do get the government they deserve. The current mess is the natural consequence of continually voting for candidates who promise everyone a lot of free shit (or at least making someone else pay for it).

        2. Well, the way this story has been spun on the news is that when Congress didn’t reauthorize these subsides immediately, it *cost* the American taxpayers billions of dollars in lost revenue. Now, the numbers on that are a bit murky, and it seems clear that the lost revenue was from other sources not related to the EAS.
          That doesn’t prevent Joe the Plumber from hearing a story like this and thinking that we really need these programs. For that reason, stories like this deserve attention, even if they only tell us things that most of us already know because the wider community either doesn’t know or doesn’t understand what’s going on.

      2. Same argument that I made for killing off NPR. If we can’t get little things done, we will never get to the big things.

        Right now, I could take a billion off the budget.

        1. End EAS
        2. End Corp for Public Broadcasting fed funding
        3. End the Indirect cost grant funding from the NIH.
        4. End Graduate Medical Education funding from the fed.
        5. End the NEA
        6. End the NEH

        This actually would take more than a billion off, but there are wind down costs and the statist libs are good at mixing essential govt services into the big programs, so we will not be able to go to absolute zero on some.

        1. By taking off parts of some of these, some entirely, and a whole ton of other stuff, I could probably cut $25 billion completely painlessly, if the newsmedia didn’t have kittens about my murder of Big Bird. Even my pet agency, NASA, would loose $1 billion, and, seeing as no more shuttles, they would have even more left over to do other stuff.

          Farm subsidies are high up there. The government paid nearly $2 billion for tobacco last year. $20 billion total in direct subsidies. I may want to push my bet up to $45 billion with this kind of wasted money.

          1. Correction. 2005. But still!

    2. One paper cut won’t kill you. Thousands will. That’s what we are facing… thousands of paper cuts. We have to start somewhere.

      1. Well…some of those paper cuts are really switchblade wounds (War, Social Security, Medicare, War, War, War).

        1. Drax all the wars do not add up to the liabilities we are racking up from Medicaid

          1. No, you’re right. I usually forget Medicaid since its specter looms like a long shadow with far flung and impossible to believe implications. But to justify my repetition, wars beget other problems like the occasional pissed off bastard willing to die to get close to something approximating revenge which in turn creates many unforseeable bureauacracies and initiatives, let along a virtual miasma of new bullshit for the “survivors” to deal with. You interpret those duplicated “wars” as representing the war on drugs, the war on fat, the war on fun, the war on drugged-up-fat-fun hookers etc. etc.

            Regardless, you’d have to admit that war in general, especially when it is manifested in the form of the “humanitarian” campaigns being executed in Iraq and Afghanistan, surely amounts to much more than just minor “paper cuts” like NASA, bridges to nowhere, and blow jobs for senators.

    3. How many of these idiotic programs are there? Just because the government is buying a 10,000 toilet and really, it’s a small amount of money compared to our overall budget, I guess we just let them act like asses with our money. Everyone who feels that way, please send me $10.00. It’s a small amount, compared to your overall budget. You keep handing it out, eventually it’s gone.

      1. Parks Department of Pennsylvania spent $300,000 on an outhouse. No running water, no joke. There are mansion cheaper than that.

    4. Yes, very good.

  4. The federal government was fucking retarded during the New Deal, and the federal government is fucking retarded today. Let’s just kill the fuckers already.

    1. Wouldn’t do any good because another crop of failed lawyers would take their place.

      1. Let’s go Galt.

        1. Where are you going to go where you and your productive friends can create your own little closed market?

          If you can’t grow vegetables on your own property without being dragged into court, how the hell are you going to go Galt?

          1. You mean, no one told you about th….Hey! Let me go! I wasn’t going to say WHERE it was!

          2. Well, there’s always space. Every, go get Aerospace Engineering degrees, and come back in five years.

            1. Every*one*

        2. It was make believe!

        3. You know that Galt’s Gulch was just like the end of Brazil, right? The entire latter part of Atlas Shrugged was a just shared fantasy that they retreated into to survive the torture inflicted on them by the socialists.

          Ok, maybe not, but I think it would have made for a better movie. Could be set up as a deconstruction of Rand’s philosophy, treating it as a fantasy constructed as a mental defense to deal with the horrors of Soviet Russia (sort of a Pan’s Labyrinth with the politics switched up). Thus, the nasty socialist parts would feel very real and ugly, and the heroic parts would feel dreamlike and fantastical.

  5. Come on man! Where are the morning links already?

  6. “We must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our selection between economy and liberty or profusion and servitude. If we run into such debts as that we must be taxed in our meat in our drink, in our necessities and comforts, in our labors and in our amusements, for our callings and our creeds… private fortunes are destroyed by public as well as by private extravagance.

    This is the tendency of all human governments. A departure from principle becomes a precedent for a second; that second for a third; and so on, till the bulk of society is reduced to mere automatons of misery, to have no sensibilities left but for sinning and suffering… And the fore horse of this frightful team is public debt. Taxation follows that, and in its train wretchedness and oppression.”

    – Thomas Jefferson

  7. The stupidest thing is that while the Senate did table (kill) McCain’s amendment to entirely eliminate Essential Air Service, the Senate accepted Coburn’s amendment to limit it. This was accepted by 65 Senators. That was on the Senate’s long-term funding bill.

    The House then incorporated the (accepted by the Senate) Coburn amendment to their short-term bill.

    However, Boxer and Rockefeller had voted to kill Coburn’s amendment. Boxer is the Transportation Committee chair, so she refused to introduce the House bill that had the Senate amendment that the 65 Senators had voted for.

    It would have taken unanimous consent to introduce the House bill anyway, but Rockefeller blocked that. It would have taken unanimous consent to introduce a new bill without the EAS Amendment, but Coburn blocked that, insisting that his amendment– which 65 Senators had refused to table– should be in the bill.

    And so it was the two Democrats “thwarting a majority (near two-thirds) of the Senate” and the House, but the media blamed it on those unreasonable House Republicans, for sending the Senate a bill that wasn’t “clean,” but contained an already approved Senate amendment.

  8. To borrow from one of the Progressive’s iconic ones: “The Journey of 1000 miles begins with the first step.”

    Problem is, these flights benefit some politicritter’s partons. Look at the airport, the politicritter and who is on the donation list. Also, realize the airport may have been built for a reason. For instance, the airport in Hagerstown, MD. was a backup landing strip for Camp David. If the Politicritter in Chief needed to get the heck out of Dodge, it was available as an escape route. Of course, built to handle large jets, it was maintained as a commercial airport to justify it’s existence. Otherwise, one would have been forced to fly from Philly or Baltimore.

    At this time, I say put a foot forward. Then swing the other and soon you have a gait. From what I see, we’d better run.

  9. “That’s the problem with reducing the federal budget. You can’t cut the big stuff because it’s too important. And you can’t cut the small stuff because it’s not worth the bother.”

    Cutting this type of waste needs to be incentivized. I suggest a bounty on spending cuts–the district/state represented by a lawmaker will get a cut of the money saved from programs they are able to eliminate (true cuts only, not reductions in planned increases). Thus, the people can hold lawmakers responsible for *not* bringing in potential revenue in the form of bounties and overall spending would be reduced.

    Granted there would be the potential for lawmakers to create spending programs, just to cut them for the bounty, and those types of loopholes would need to be worked out (by someone more responsible than the lawmakers).

  10. Hmmmm! Let’s see…..because the country is full of dumb fucks????

  11. The agricultural City-State (civilization) must dominate a geographical area, and doesn’t want the natives to become restless. Subsidizing to outlying areas, even if not profitable from a per instance calculation, keeps everybody thinking civilization’s system of domination has some benefits to them.

  12. Sounds to me like they might be onto something dude.

  13. What do you guys think about bread? Should we eat it?
    What’s the best sandwich?

    1. That’s easy. The Sugar-coated Satanwich is the best.

  14. Lewistown is only a hour and a half drive to Great Falls and a 3 hour drive to Billings.

  15. I’ve lived in Lancaster, PA my entire life and I don’t know anybody who’s ever flown out of the local airport. Everyone drives the hour to Philly or BWI.

  16. Is $2 million for subsidized is too much expensive? By the way, is there anyone can tell me hows the flight is exhilarating, I am so oblivious about that…?

  17. I favor all of the suggested cuts discussed in earlier posts, including EAS.

    Re Graduate Medical Education funding (of which my daughter was apparently a recipient), is there any other way to become a doctor in this country? I guess she could have given her share back, if she knew how much that was.)

    From the Wikipedia article on EAS, it appears that the airline providing a particular community’s service receives an annual flat rate subsidy, without regard to how many people actually fly. The best case for an airline would be if no one actually flew on the route. Maybe that’s why I don’t see ads for Cape Air’s service to/from Lancaster, PA, near me.


    1. Medicare pays ~$100k-125k per resident per year to training hospitals (varies based on location) so your daughter “owes” between $300k-625k depending on location and specialty. I’m guessing she isn’t gonna volunteer for that.

  18. I like this post, enjoyed this one appreciate it for putting up.

  19. Let’s not pretend that the House Republicans aren’t playing politics with EAS program too – the $1000 per passenger subsidy that was deemed too high and would get cut was carefully determined so that every airport to get cut was in a Democratic district and all the EAS airports receiving subsides in Republican districts were maintained.

  20. Steve,

    You have been cherry-picked. The AP posted this 3 days after your article. If I were you I would not be happy.…..1-21-42-37



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