Essential Air Service; GOOD, BAD or UGLY


By Gary R. Ness

The publisher of the State Aviation Journal asked if a broad-brush approach on Essential Air Service, (EAS) could be put together for the enjoyment and edification of its readers.  No problem, we can “Broad Bush” just about anything, given time. The first thing to do was to probe my personal data base on the EAS program; being from a rural state with three EAS sites that database is extensive.  Next, I “Googled” to see what information is in cyberspace. As the cowboys say, “Whoa”, 4,420,000 web results!  Total surprise is not the word.  How can so much be accumulated on one small transportation program?

Let’s start from the beginning, with an explanation and definition from the USDOT, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs; Office of Aviation Analysis; Division of Essential Air Service and Domestic Analysis:

The reason for the Essential Air Service Program is explained.   

The Airline Deregulation Act, passed in 1978, gave airlines almost total freedom to determine which markets to serve domestically and what fares to charge for that service. The Essential Air Service (EAS) program was put into place to guarantee that small communities that were served by certificated air carriers before deregulation maintain a minimal level of scheduled air service. The Department currently subsidizes commuter airlines to serve approximately 140 rural communities across the country that otherwise would not receive any scheduled air service.

The first entry in my data base is November 1986, with reauthorization hearings being held across the nation. Wolf Point, Montana was on the hearing site list – reason, it’s the smallest community, in the lower 48 served by the program.  The Montana congressional contingent had requested that hearing officers come to the most rural area to see first-hand, the reasons the program should continue to function.  If memory serves me right, the total budget for the program at that time was less than $25,000,000.  As of May, 2010 the program serves, in the lower forty-eight, 34 states + Puerto Rico, with 109 communities with a subsidy of $163,000,000.

Before reauthorization discussion began, a large group of interested citizens, from across the nation, met in Denver Colorado and created the “National Committee of Cities and States for Air Service” (NCCSAS). These were individuals from New Hampshire to California.  They created a great interest, strengthened by the diversity of the group, in the EAS issue, to the end point of the program being reauthorized.   EAS was saved. The reauthorization took place but for the last 24 years a continued conflict has ensued.

A Change in Conversation

There has always been a Love/Hate relationship with the Essential Air Service program from all corners of the country.  You can only LOVE the program and see the benefits for it, if you live or work in rural America; or you HATE the program as a wasteful boondoggle, that is only rivaled by the “Bridge to NO Where”. I would like to hear from the readers of the State Aviation Journal what your opinion is. In a later issue we will discuss the program and include your input.

The program has been around as long as anyone can remember.  Each and every one of you probably has an opinion, so please forward your remarks, opinions, comments and good thoughtful reasoning to

In a future issue we will give an unabridged analysis of the program from a readership perspective. Thank you.

The Editor of the State Aviation Journal solicited the efforts of Mr. Ness for this project based on his years of experience and exposure to the EAS program as the former Director of the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission and as a participant on various statewide, regional and national committees and groups concerned with the program.