Talks begin to improve US air service connectivity to small communities

Commercial air service is a significant enabler of economic growth, and this is particularly true in small rural communities where hub links and the access they afford to connect to other markets, both domestically and internationally, are essential. Airline consolidation, pilot shortages and competition from neighbouring airports are currently limiting air service options in many of these markets.

The first meeting of the new working group on improving air service to small communities takes place in the United States of America this month. The group will advise Congress on current and emerging priorities, issues, and funding needs related to providing air service to small communities across the country.

Commercial air service is a significant enabler of economic growth, and this is particularly true in small rural communities where hub links and the access they afford to connect to other markets, both domestically and internationally, are essential. Airline consolidation, pilot shortages and competition from neighbouring airports are currently limiting air service options in many of these markets.

The Working Group was created in accordance with the US Federal Aviation Administration Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016 which directs the Secretary of Transportation to issue a report to Congress on the subject by July 2017. It includes 25 stakeholders representing a cross-section of airport officials state aviation officials, regional airline executives, consultants, and academicians with knowledge and experience in supporting small communities.

The group is operating completely independently from the US Department of Transportations and will focus on whether funding for its existing Essential Air Service (EAS) programme, Small Community Air Service Development Program (SCASDP) and Airport Improvement Program (AIP) are sufficient, and to identify initiatives to help increase the supply of commercially qualified pilots.

The US DOT says it expects that the discussions and outcomes will also consider many factors, including post-consolidation among legacy carriers, demographic changes within the US and on a global scale, legislative and regulatory changes affecting airlines, economics of airlines operating smaller aircraft, and other structural impediments.

The EAS programme was put into place in the US to guarantee that small communities that were served by certificated air carriers before airline deregulation maintain a minimal level of scheduled air service. This is generally accomplished by subsidising two round trips a day with 30- to 50-seat aircraft, or additional frequencies with aircraft with nine-seats or fewer, usually to a large- or medium-hub airport. 

The Department currently subsidises commuter and certificated air carriers to serve approximately 60 communities in Alaska and 115 communities in the lower 48 contiguous states that otherwise would not receive any scheduled air service.

The SCASDP is a grant programme designed to help small communities address air service and airfare issues and is separate and unique to EAS and managed by the associate director, small community air service development, under the Office of Aviation Analysis.

EAS is a direct subsidy to air carriers and serves a limited universe of eligible applicants, while SCASDP’s eligibility criteria are broader and provide a grant applicant the opportunity to self-identify its air service deficiencies and propose an appropriate solution. This can involve, among others, revenue guarantees, financial assistance for marketing programmes, start-up costs and studies.

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