Now before I get too far into this, I want to say that I’m not really sure if this is a good use of taxpayer money or not. Our tax dollars go towards lots of programs and I don’t necessarily think that every one has to appeal to every taxpayer because in a country of 300 million people, that’s simply not realistic!

Still I thought this was interesting simply because until five minutes ago I had no idea that such a program even existed…

The program that I speak of is called Essential Air Service and it’s run by the US Dept. of Transportation to help support air travel in rural areas that otherwise couldn’t commercially support it. The way that I discovered it was through a random news article shared on Facebook about a local airport back home in Northern Michigan adding direct service to Dallas for a limited time this summer, with a single line catching my eye…

“It costs more than a million dollars to add this service, but the United States Department of Transportation provided a $750,000 grant.”

I found this interesting because apparently a total of 8 small town airports around Michigan collect some $18 million in federal tax dollars each year through Essential Air Service, out of a larger $300 million nationwide.

Now Michigan is very bottom heavy with regards to its population distribution, in that the big cities across the bottom of the state – Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Detroit – have by far the most, and the further north you go, the fewer people you’ll find until you eventually get into the Upper Peninsula where you tend to encounter more deer than actual human beings. 😉

The problem is, deer don’t fly commercial flights, so if you want to travel anywhere you pretty much have to drive downstate in order to catch a plane, with Detroit Metro being the largest airport in the state. Though many smaller communities scattered throughout the state have airports of their own, they’re mostly limited to small planes and in most cases, they’re just puddle jumpers that connect you through Detroit to continue on to your destination anyways…

I’ve never actually flown into one of the smaller airports myself, mostly because they’re typically a lot more expensive. For example, several years ago I remember pricing out tickets to visit during the summer and while two round-trip tickets from Tampa to Detroit were around $200 each, tickets from Tampa to Pellston – a small town much closer to home – were closer to $750 each!

For reference, flying into Detroit leaves you with another 4 hour car ride to get up to my hometown, whereas flying into Pellston is maybe an hour’s drive at best.

So a few thoughts here:

  • How does the airline justify charging 3x the ticket prices when they’re also getting excess of a million dollars a year in taxpayer subsidizes just to operate out of that small town airport?!
  • Is this a good use of taxpayer funds, particularly with a sizable national debt?
  • Who really benefits from these subsidizes?

I’m kind of torn on this because up until reading this article, I assumed that the higher ticket prices in these smaller airports were what the airlines needed to charge to justify doing business in those regions … but to hear that they’re also getting taxpayer funding on top of those high ticket prices??? Sure, it’s the same thing that we did with telephone surcharges and now do with cable and broadband taxes in order to require those companies to service rural areas, but at the end of the day does it all just come at the fault of our country being way too spread out in the first place?

I’m not sure if there’s much argument for transportation access for locals simply because – granted, depending on the area and the carrier – it’s hard for me to imagine most small town residents being able to afford those rates to fly local anyways! I know that whenever we flew and even now, we’d fly into the larger airport farther away purely because the time cost was easier to justify than the ticket cost.

Still, it makes it easier for travelers to come and visit these areas, and I’m ok with tax dollars going to support tourism … though I might suggest that the local states would be better off funding this reason than federal dollars.

There are jobs created – both direct and indirect – that the locals can enjoy, but again, I’m not crazy about taxes funding job creation if the markets can’t support them on their own … at least with regards to for-profit entities, for the most part.

So at the end of the day, is this just a $300 million Christmas present to an industry that’s kind of struggling, but let’s not kid ourselves when they still clear $16 billion a year in profits???

I’d be curious to know how much taxpayer funding it costs us as a nation – between transportation, telecommunications, and whatever other subsidizes like this are out there – simply to support everyone living so far apart. You’ve got to figure it also costs more in roads and bridges, there are probably expenses related to energy and other resources … what else?

And don’t get me wrong, there are certainly plenty of beautiful, natural areas around the USA that I wouldn’t exactly call for scrapping, even if the most utopian configuration called for populations in dense towers all crunched into a state the size of Texas!

Still, it’s interesting to discover a nearly unknown program that realistically affects a pretty small segment of our population, and to try and better understand the justifications for why it exists in the first place.

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