How do small towns get flights? Thanks to the Essential Air Service – USA TODAY

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If you look on a map, Page, Arizona, appears fairly remote. It’s surrounded by desert on the shores of Lake Powell, just across the border from Utah. By car, Page is about 4.5 hours from Las Vegas or Phoenix, the nearest big cities.

And yet, this town with a population of around 7,500 has two daily flights to Phoenix thanks to the Essential Air Service program, a subsidy that allows small communities to stay connected to the national aviation network.

Those flights help keep the tourist-dependent economy in Page afloat, said Michael Schneider, a regional director of sales and marketing for Aramark, which operates tours on the Colorado River out of Page under the Wilderness River Adventures brand in contract with the National Park Service. 

“We really rely on these Essential Air flights,” Schneider said. “We need the tourists to come in to keep the economy alive in Page. That’s what most people work in, our restaurants, hotels, activity tourism-type of things. That’s pretty much what the city is run on.”

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What is the Essential Air Service?

The Essential Air Service (EAS) program is a government grant that subsidizes airlines to fly to small communities.

EAS was developed in response to airline deregulation legislation that was passed in 1978, according to Daniel Friedenzohn, professor of aeronautical science and associate dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.

“There were some markets that might not be able to get air service without some subsidy,” he said. “It has allowed some communities to have air service that would not get it without this Essential Air Service program in place.”

What are Essential Air Service flights like?

It can really vary. There are minimum requirements for plane sizes and frequencies, but operators have a lot of latitude when it comes to what aircraft they use and what kind of service they offer onboard.

“You may not get all the benefits of flying on a regional jet or even a larger jetliner, but it tends to be reliable service, and in many cases, the flight isn’t that long,” Friedenzohn said.

At least on the Page-Phoenix route, which is flown by Contour Airlines, the flights usually take less than an hour and are similar to those operated by mainline airlines with larger planes, according to Schneider.

“They have refreshment services, they have a bathroom, it’s pretty similar to a normal jet, just way smaller,” he said.

How can travelers book Essential Air Service flights?

That also depends on the operator, but most of the flights are bookable like those on any other airline.

“In today’s world, you book on the website if you can, and obviously everybody uses the internet these days or an app,” Friedenzohn said. “For some people, it might be unique because people aren’t familiar with the particular airline.”

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How do communities qualify?

EAS-qualifying communities in the continental U.S. states must have received subsidies between Sept. 30, 2010 and Sept. 30, 2011, and need to be at least 70 driving miles from the nearest major airport. They must also maintain a minimum of 10 passengers per subsidized flight on average per day each year, unless it is more than 175 miles to the nearest larger airport. The subsidy is limited to $200 per passenger on average, except for communities more than 210 miles from larger airports. 

Communities in Hawaii and Alaska have different requirements, and the DOT stopped adding new communities to the EAS list in the lower 48 in 2012.

The Department of Transportation’s website contains more technical details about qualifications

“It’s important for people (who) live in the community to be able to connect to major flights,” Schneider, who lives in Phoenix, said. “I can hop in a cab and be at the airport in 10 minutes and fly to a foreign country, they don’t have the luxury of doing that,” but EAS service enables people in small towns to make those connections more easily.

What are the requirements for airlines to operate Essential Air Service flights?

Airlines bidding for EAS contracts usually have to plan to operate at least two daily flights to the subsidized community on 30- or 50-seat aircraft. Operators can also use smaller planes, including those with nine seats or fewer, and run flights at higher frequencies. 

Friedenzohn, from Embry-Riddle, said that the DOT sometimes relaxes these requirements on a case-by-case basis. 

In 2021, the DOT spent nearly $340 million on EAS grants.