by Michael Lowrey
The price of airline deregulation back in the 1970s was the Essential Air Service program, which guarantees air service (within certain limits) to communities that had scheduled air service at the time of deregulation. The program is problematic for many reasons, including that it now relies on turboprops, exactly the sort of aircraft the airline industry is moving away from, and puts routes up for bid every two years, which makes capital planning difficult for airlines and confuses customers.
The Beckley, WV Register-Herald provides this description of the program:
[Greenbrier Valley Airport manager Stephen] Snyder explained that the present-day federal subsidy program to ensure commercial service for small-market and rural airports was born of the 1974 airline deregulation decision. Prior to that, the U.S. government exerted considerable control over airline service and fees. Afterwards, with each airline free to offer only the most lucrative flights, if they so desired, “small communities like ours got left out,” Snyder said.
“Since then, EAS has grown into a hugely expensive program,” he added. “Prices have really skyrocketed. But without it, we wouldn’t have air service here.”
In preparing the bid request — a process that took hundreds of man-hours — Snyder said the focus was on how to keep fares in check and flight arrival and departure times convenient in order to boost passenger volume, while at the same time meeting the needs of the commercial carrier, thereby ensuring high-performance airlines would consider submitting bids on the EAS offer.
“Forty-nine dollar (fares) is what we asked for, but not more than $100,” he said. “We need to look at what best suits the market. If the airline doesn’t succeed, it’s not good for anybody.”
Only one North Carolina city currently benefits from EAS: Charlotte (CLT). Flights from small towns in effectively the middle-of-nowhere have to go to somewhere, and the somewhere in question for many EAS flights from West Virginia is now Charlotte. CLT has been the destination for EAS service from Beckley (BkW) for nearly two years now. Via Air, the airline that handles the flights, recently also won the EAS contracts for Greenbrier-Lewisburg (LWB), Parkersburg (PKB), and Clarksburg (CKB), resulting in two flights a day each from Greenbrier and Parkersburg to CLT and a one-stop to Clarksburg.
The previous EAS contract for Greenbrier was for $3,582,194 a year for flights a day on 34-seat turboprops to Washington Dulles airport (IAD). Parkersburg got about the same amount for three flights a day to IAD while Clarksburg got $2,310,252 for two flights a day to Dulles.
Via Air also flies from Charlotte to St. Augustine, FL and seasonal to Myrtle Beach. Neither of those routes receive money via the EAS program.
Charlotte Douglas International Airport is currently building more gates for the airlines other than American Airlines that serve the airport. Somehow, I don’t think this was really the sort of service they were after with the expansion, but I’m pretty sure they’ll take it.