Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cutbacks in "rural" air routes

Both NPR and the New York Times did stories this past week on impending cutbacks to commercial airline routes that serve small markets. Both used the word "rural" to characterize these markets, which are more accurately labeled nonmetropolitan.

Here's the lede for the Times story, which appeared in the business section and focuses on airline economics.
Rural America, already struggling to recover from the recession and the flight of its young people, is about to take another blow: the loss of its airline service.

That was underscored last week when Delta Air Lines announced that it “can no longer afford” to continue service at 24 small airports. The carrier says it is losing a total of $14 million a year on flights from places like Thief River Falls, a city of 8,600 in northwest Minnesota that fills only 12 percent of the seats, or Pierre, the capital of South Dakota, where Delta’s two daily flights are on average less than half full.
The map accompanying the story indicates that the states losing routes are Mississippi, Alabama, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas, and Montana. Delta took on many of these routes when it acquired Northwest Airlines. Serving these markets has been made more economically feasible by the nearly $200 million in federal subsidies that small airports receive in order "to maintain air service under the Essential Air Service program." Those subsidies are set to expire in 2013.

The NPR report is more focused on politics than business, as the headline suggests: "Partisan Dispute to Partially Shut down FAA." Here's the story's lede:
Efforts to avert a shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration failed Friday amid a disagreement over a $16.5 million cut in subsidies to 13 rural communities, ensuring that nearly 4,000 people will be temporarily out of work and federal airline ticket taxes will be suspended.
* * *
But underlying the dispute on rural air service subsidies was a standoff between the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate over a provision in long-term funding legislation for the FAA that would make it more difficult for airline and railroad workers to unionize.
Read more here.

Finally, this item in today's New York Times also mentions "rural airports" in passing. The story is about how wealthy families are now using private planes to get their kids to summer in camps in hard-to-reach places like Maine. One line notes that this week-end, a popular one for family visits to camps, "private planes jammed the runways at small rural airports" in Maine. I guess those families can pay whatever fees the small airports charge, even absent subsidies.

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