Thanks, Taxpayers, for My Subsidized Ticket on an Airplane Gutted to Meet Stupid Regulations


Beechcraft 1900D
Great Lakes Airlines

Usually, when I fly into Los Angeles, I take a shuttle bus to Phoenix and catch a plane out of Sky Harbor Airport. This time, though, I caught a commuter flight out of tiny Ernest A. Love Field in Prescott. I caught that plane with three other people. Thank you, taxpayers, for subsidizing our jaunt as part of the often (and justly) criticized Essential Air Service program. The problems with that boondoggle, which is withering away none too soon, are well demonstrated by the fact that half the seats had been ripped out of the plane to skate by FAA regulations, and we still rattled around in the damned thing.

Prescott's wonderfully bare-bones Ernest A. Love Field offers commercial service to LAX courtesy of Great Lakes Airlines. OK, it's really courtesy of American taxpayers, who underwrite the operation to the tune of $2,094,235 (PDF) per year.

I'd add the technical detail that the service is offered on 19-seat Beechcraft 1900D turboprop planes, except that when we boarded, the plane was gutted. Ten of the seats had been ripped out.

"It's because of me," the pilot told a fellow passenger who asked about the very interesting configuration, though he meant the company's pilots in general. "The FAA revised pilot qualifications last year for 19 seat planes. So now we only operate them with nine seats."

In fact, Great Lakes illustrates the change on its website (PDF) as…well…a feature. A wonderfully inexplicable feature.

Beechcraft 1900D
Great Lakes Airlines

This change has been noticed elsewhere. Blogger Brett Snyder, also known as CrankyFlier, writes, "Just about every airline in the US operates under 14 CFR Part 121. That's part of the code of federal regulations. You'll commonly hear it referred to as just Part 121. Any airline operating under Part 121 is subject to those new pilot rules requiring each hired pilot to have 1,500 hours of flying (with a few exceptions)."

But there's a shortage of pilots who meet the increased requirements. So Snyder speculates (and my pilot confirmed) that small airlines are moving to satisfy the looser requirements that apply to Part 135 operations, with planes of fewer than 10 seats. They do this by flying the same planes they did before, but with more than half the seats ripped out.

Adds Snyder:

isn't that insane to run a 19-seat airplane with only 9 seats? In the normal world, yes. That would mean your costs are going to be much higher on a per-seat basis. But we're not in the normal world. We're in Essential Air Service world. And in Essential Air Service world, airlines are lucky to get 9 people in those 19 seats on a good day.

Lucky…like the four people, including myself, who were on my plane—with the costs largely covered by taxpayers.

For what it's worth, Snyder sees no safety issue in the scheme, since the same pilots who were safely flying 19-seat planes are now operating the nine-seaters. It's just an end-run around red tape.

In 2006, the New York Times noted that the Essential Air Service "program has come to seem mostly expensive and, to its critics, unessential." The same article noted that, in the United States, the plane on which I flew is entirely a creature of subsidized routes. "No one I'm aware of has figured out how to operate the 1900 outside the Essential Air Service program," said the head of Mesa Air, another regional operator.

Unlike many criticisms of boondoggles, this one has had some impact. No new communities can join the subsidized program as of 2010, and starting last year, existing operations under the program have to maintain an average of ten passengers per day (Kingman, Arizona, is being booted after achieving just 2.7 passengers per day, along with other low-traffic communities).

To judge by my flight, Prescott's taxpayer-subsidized air travel days are numbered. And well they should be. But thanks, taxpayers, for that very educational trip.

NEXT: Jacob Sullum on Chuck Schumer's Bogus Heroin Cure

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  1. The only that could have made that adventure better would be if you were flying out of Murtha Airport.

    1. Look up the stats on JST, it boasts a total of 27600 operations a year of which 15,000 are general aviation. It hosts 26 based aircraft, has its own control.tower and approach.controllers, and two big.runways.

      My home airport has a single.runway, hosts about 125 aircraft, and has over.77,000 GA flights a year.

    2. Or some small grassy airport. That always makes flights enjoyable.

  2. Hey, tearing out the seats improves mileage, which is better for the environment!

    1. Look at that cabin configuration. They could have spread the rows out a little more. Maybe added a shitter.

      1. I’m guessing that there are regs on row spacing that have to be met.

        1. not doubting that you are probably right, but the reality behind that line about regs on spacing may be the day’s best highlight on the lunacy of federal rules.

        2. No, it is to ensure that the passenger weight is evenly distributed about the center.of gravity. Concentrating the weight over.the.wings helps keep the c.g. within operating limits.

          1. I get that, but the cg can be met with wider row spacing as well.

            1. My guess is it is to minimize labor in removing the seats.and replacing them later.

              1. This is dumber than a box of rocks.

                1. That’s racist..against rocks

      2. Why do you want to make the Sky Marshall’s job harder, Fist?

      3. Or maybe one row of comfortable seats?

      4. Or at least a bar.

      5. They’re totally blowing a market opportunity for a swinger’s mile high club option, for that space from the missing seats.

        Throw a couple fluffy pillows in there, add some lotion stations and BAM! Orgy Airlines.

      6. They’d probably count the shitter as a seat.

      7. I’d rather have a screamer than a shitter. The latter stinks up the bed.

  3. The Department currently subsidizes commuter airlines to serve approximately 163 rural communities across the country that otherwise would not receive any scheduled air service.

    Because travel by airplane is a right? (If you don’t look “scary”, that is.)

    1. you don’t suppose that people who chose to live in those areas understood that having to drive to an airport was part of the deal, do you?

    2. Travel by airplane is a right — unless the government puts you on a secret list.

      1. I’m going to the store later today. Where’s my flight since it’s my right?

        We don’t have to pay for our rights do we? Other than eternal viligence.

  4. Do they use the same 9 seats they used before or do they at least put in some big luxury seats? I am guessing the same 9 seats jammed into the smallest area.

    1. They sent their mechanic in and removed ten seats. They didn’t change the seats left behind.

    2. Heck, if they removed every other row, people at least would have more legroom.

  5. It’s a great safety feature! In case of a crash, the maximum potential number of people killed is cut in half!

  6. I was in one of those planes last month going from Allentown to Philly – with 19 passengers. A very short shitty flight.

    1. Well, you were stuck on a plane with 18 other Pennsylvanians. Why wouldn’t it be shitty?

    2. Why fly at all? Philly and A-town are kinda far apart but it’s all highways between them.

      1. “kinda far apart”? Google says its a one hour drive without traffic.

        1. Still, it has to be quicker than going to the airport and going through security. And getting out of PHL is a huge pain as well.

      2. I was going to Chicago and wanted the direct flight back to A-town.

        1. Oh. That would make driving a wee tad impractical then.

  7. Left to their own devices, the airlines would make you bring your own seat. And you’d be strapped to the wings.

    1. Huh? A rain storm would take care of this quick. If that didn’t, one person would get hit by a duck or struck by lightning. The airline would get sued for everything down to its toenails and no one would fly.

      Like saying if meat processors were left to their own devices you’d only be able to buy 50% Ground Chuck 50% human feces.

      1. Are you new here?

    2. Are you trying to be funny, or are you totally oblivious as to what competition in business provides?

  8. Not an aeronautical engineer, but my money on which seat to retain selection was driven by weight distribution, the need to maintain center of gravity, and like technical reasons.

    1. One can hope.

    2. The seats are probably balanced around the CG, but that can be accomplished by spreading them out an even amount in front and behind the CG as well.

      They probably based the seat removal on which ones were easiest to remove while still maintaining the balance.

      1. But.on small.planes like this, an uneven passenger load can make.a.big.difference. if they had seats spread out, people would tend to seat themselves far apart and.if there were few.passengers, it could cause he c.g. to be.out.of its.proper.envelope. so they simplify and force everyone to the center and.concentrate the.weight.over.the.wings

    3. what if you have really fat people in certain seats? There goes center of gravity.

  9. If you put beds in those planes, you could start a whole new type of frequent flier.

    1. Until the first turbulence-induced bite lawsuit, anyway.

    2. I need to read down.

  10. Even with the subsidies, these flights are incredibly expensive. I have family in far west Kansas. They actually have commercial air service to a couple of small towns out there. Even with the subsidy, you can fly into the nearest large airport and rent a car for a week and still come out well ahead. No one who moves to a small town far from a major airport does so expecting to be able to fly out of the local airport. What a rip off.

    1. Would be interesting to see who is flying. My guess is government employees and business travelers mainly.

    2. As a friend who owns a plane mentions, the thing that keeps planes in the air is money.

      1. Yeah, they are worse than boats. I would love to be a pilot and have a plane. I can’t imagine ever having the money short of winning the lottery.

        1. Join a flying club? that’s about the only way I see being able to afford a plane.

  11. Ridin’ on the City of New Orleans
    Illinois Central, Monday morning rail.
    Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders,
    Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail.

  12. It’s like the train line to Mexico in Atlas Shrugged that barely anyone road. There is way too much shrugging going on these days.

    1. barely anyone “rode”. D’oh. Brain not working.

      1. There are no “rode”s in libertopia!

  13. Ah Washington, is there nothing they can’s F** up?

    1. You can say fuck here, we’re all adults… except for Tony

      1. And PB and Mary and . . .

      2. Some adults aren’t particularly fond of profanity. If we wouldn’t criticize someone here for swearing, why would we criticize another for being a bit discreet?

  14. Looking at the diagram, seat 1 must be first class. Very weird.

    1. That’s probably the attendant’s seat.

  15. OK

    1. Why would you rip out seats and leave 9 all crammed together like that. Is increasing passenger comfort against FAA regulations.

    2. What did they do with the extra space. If they didn’t at least put in a small bar/lounge then they’re doing it wrong.

    1. If the weight of the passengers is not close to equal in front of and behind the wings, the plane loses the ability of the plane to fly in straight and level flight even if the pilot stops flying the plane. Think about seesaws – the further you are away from the fulcrum, to more rotational force you create. If you retain equally spaced seats, and all the passengers decide to sit up front (or move in the air), you have a real problem. The nose of the plane will pitch down.

      First class passengers are boarded first not (only) because they’re snobs – if you filled the plane up from the tail end forward, the front wheels could come off the ground

  16. Also, Essential Air Service.

    “Providing air craft travel options, to places that have perfectly functioning connections to the interstate system we built at great expense, since 1978”

    1. Essential Air Service gets people out of privately owned cars and into public transit…

  17. And finally. Its bullshit that Prescott and Show Low get EAS subsidies when they about an hour from Phoenix, while down here in Yuma we have to pay full price for our flights from the local airport or drive 3 hours into Phoenix or San Diego.

  18. You are welcome.
    Is there anything else we can do for you, or is a check from the Koch’s taking care of the rest?

  19. The airplane flying industry is regulated to death. That is the only reason everything is so god damn expensive and there is no real competition. A guy I know maintains his own small airplane and told me that the timing belt has an exact match on the auto market that is 1/6 the cost of the one he is mandated to use bc it has the aviation-approved rubber stamp. Multiply this kind of nonsense thousands of times over, and you have a big mess.

    Think of the public’s irrational fear of flying. Even though you’re way more likely to die on the highway than in an aircraft, people are exponentially more terrified of the aircraft. That irrational fear will not allow a reduction of the FAA’s totalitarian cancer any time soon, if ever.

  20. “No one I’m aware of has figured out how to operate the 1900 outside the Essential Air Service program,” said the head of Mesa Air, another regional operator.”
    Maybe not in America, but I think it’s used in other countries with areas of less population density.

  21. With immoral subsidies (air service to rural areas that don’t make economic sense, but force people to pay for it that don’t use it), come ridiculous regulations (rip out the extra seats so they can use the plane without violating regulations to make sure pilots aren’t being unsafe).

    Please get government out of “regulating” commerce (leave government to resove disputes in court).

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