Many Americans below the age of thirty would probably be shocked to learn that the federal government used to control the entire airline industry. And when I say "control" I don't mean in the abstract; an agency called the Civil Aeronautics Board, which in 1967 was integrated into the Department of Transportation, determined which airlines would service each route/destination and set passenger ticket prices that were standardized across the industry. Consequently the industry was dominated by a small number of very large operations – Pan Am, TWA, Delta, and so on. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 changed all of that, of course, and set the stage for the bankruptcy-riddled, shambolic industry we have today.

One thing that Congress realized when passing the ADA was that major airlines would quickly drop unprofitable routes. In order to receive highly profitable routes under regulation – New York to Chicago, or whatever – the CAB would require airlines to provide service to Joplin, MO or Saginaw, MI or some other such isolated red ink route. Absent the government mandate, Delta and United would find it in their interest to abandon such routes immediately. To prevent that from happening, and recognizing the value of having a national network of scheduled air service, Congress created the Essential Air Service (EAS). That sounds like some kind of team of highly trained covert operatives and would be a fantastic band name to boot. The reality is more mundane, though.
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The EAS program simply subsidized service to populous but remote locations that would not otherwise get scheduled service from airlines. This is the sole reason that passengers can fly to places like Muscle Shoals, AL and Bismarck, ND. The program is not large in the context of the federal budget, but it clocks in at a not-insignificant $100-120 million annually. (Curious to know if your airport is one of 110 in the Lower 48 that receives EAS money? Look here.)

Raise your hand if you know where this is heading.

The Essential Air Service program began in 1978 as a temporary way to help small airports survive federal deregulation. Rep. Tom Petri, chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, says the program is obsolete.

"Why should the government have to pay for all this?" asks Petri, a Wisconsin Republican.

What comes next is stupid even by the standards of modern House Republicans from rural Wisconsin:

Being from a big state, Petri is very aware that small airports are important to rural voters. What does he tell them when they complain about his plan to cut subsidies?

"Up in northern Wisconsin, a number of people weren't happy about this sort of thing," he admits. "I say well … my part of the state, Appleton, had air service and it was canceled numerous times and each time it was canceled people got together and started a new airline themselves. It's not that hard. You just need a pilot and a small plane."

Let that sink in for a moment. OK? Good.

It's important to move past the prima facie stupidity of that statement and explore its very deep ignorance of the history of the industry since deregulation. Airline startups boomed in the 1980s; I remember names like Midwest Air, Air Illinois, Midway Airlines, Chicago Air, Ozark Airlines, and ATA in my neck of the woods as a kid. A funny thing happened to these airlines, as you might have guessed already looking at that list: every goddamn one of them failed. Some of the larger ones were purchased by major carriers to serve as feeders once they could no longer survive on their own. Most of them just went belly-up and disappeared. This happens because providers that serve small markets inevitably discover that A) providing the level of service people expect from major airlines is too expensive and B) to make money you have to cut costs, well, everywhere. Cheap planes, cheap maintenance, cheap wages, cheap safety procedures…that's how you make money flying from Helena to Denver. But the funny thing about "cheap" and "airline" is that when you try to combine the two, planes have a tendency to fall out of the sky. Turns out that the deicing equipment couldn't last three months beyond its spec replacement date, and those 100 hours in the simulator didn't really prepare Captain Bob (who was working an office job six months ago) to fly an ATR at night in the snow.

But perhaps the problem is that people who don't have the decency and good sense to live near an airport that major carriers can profitably serve just expect too much. Maybe "a pilot and a small plane" is all they need. Remember, It's not that hard. To start an airline. Would-be passengers can just show up at the airport and say "Hey, can someone fly me to Minneapolis today?" Then they can clamber on board some guy's Piper Cub for a no-instrument adventure flight to the big city.

Sounds like the kind of transportation experience we should have here in this industrialized country that touts itself as the greatest, most advanced, and most economically powerful in the world.

42 thoughts on “RAMSHACKLE AIRLINES”

  • After reading this, I started to play a little game in my head:

    Imagine a GOP lawmaker/bobble-head beginning a statement with "Why should taxpayers have to foot the bill for–" *or* "Do you really trust the government to–"

    Now: which services can one *not* imagine a GOP lawmaker including in either statement? Very few, and the ones I came up with all have one thing in common: Bullets. GOP lawmakers are only OK with the government providing services that require the regular use of bullets. Which, given how much of their rhetoric is devoted to deriding the government as clown-headed incompetents, I find bemusing.

    It seems that the only difference between the GOP and the Libertarians at this point is that I actually agree with several of the Libertarian social policies. Fuck it: Ron Paul 2012! (No, not really, but Jesus, I'm tired of watching the collapse of civilization at the hands of the barbarians within the gates.)

  • @Dryden – I thought the only difference was that Libertarians start all their sentences with "I'm not a conservative/Republican, really more of a Libertarian…"

  • There is an argument to be made — not one I like, but one which does make sense, at least in its own terms — that what this really means is that air travel to and from most of those EAS cities isn’t economically justified. Sure, people want it, but not enough to pay for it, unless you hide/displace the cost by having the government subsidize it.

    I’ve read (I don’t have a cite, so I’m not confident of this) that air travel is vastly less fuel-efficient than any other way of getting between two given points… which might be another argument for less cheap, available air travel, whether we like the idea when put bluntly or not.

    (Of course, the GOP won’t make those arguments, since in their universe all you have to do is let the people with the money do whatever they please, and soon we’ll all have everything we desire… and a pony!)

  • The reason we can't trust the govt to do a proper job at something is that morons keep electing ppl who want to bring it down.

    Sort of like letting car and tyre companies purchase LA's tram network. What could possibly go wrong?

  • Middle Seaman says:

    We can all go back to car travel or, if the Republicans prevail, horse and buggy.

    In the 21st century air travel is a must. Small, isolated or remote towns need the less profitable air travel for the sick, emergencies and for getting highly expensive services unavailable in such places.

    In this particular case, it seems that Wisconsin is way in front in the competition for the most obnoxious state in the nation and the closest to its old senator, McCarty, accomplishments.

    Generally, it is shocking how backward, baseless, unreasonable and mean spirited have the Republicans become.

  • Of course, most of the voters in the various East Bumfuzzles are Republicans, so while the chance of these cuts actually going through may be somewhere between slim and none, on balance they

  • (wtf? I think WordPress treates an apostrophe as the end of a post. Here is the rest:)

    are closer to “none”. My guess is these cuts are being generated at the committee level as a bargaining chip, so at some point Republicans can offer to restore the airport funding as a “concession” to Democrats, in exchange for, say, dropping a whole category of EPA regulations, or maybe just more tax cuts for the rich.

  • @Basilisc: please say your theory is correct!

    Wouldn't it be a fantastic joke on the Rs on this one. Where they're just making their "prudent" noise in the name of ideology. With them going "Gotta cut! Gotta cut!" so here's a bitsy piece off the sacrificial lamb's tail. Now how about you Ds taking a major part of your main planks (eg taxes or EPA funding) to save it!
    Only to have the Ds say, "Nuh! We'll keep the EPA thank you." Then pull up the video of Petri spouting off like this coming into an election, and the Ds saying well we didn't want to, but he insisted…

    If we look at the map of these places, I wouldn't class them as being very Blue. Pendleton, OR? Not the most progressive of places.

    So think about this as the joke being on them. Suddenly these regions will get a *very* clear message about just how much they rely on the govt, and that the Free Market really doesn't give a spit about them. Maybe they'll learn that the Market is a very unforgiving teacher.

  • There is a problem with EAS, and it's probably clear if you look at the list at the link. In the 'greater' Greater DC area, the subsidized airport is Hagerstown, MD. The problem is that Hagerstown is only about an hour from Dulles (IAD), 64 miles. There is, simply put, no reason to subsidize a local airport an hour's drive away from a major international airport; no reason, that is, except politics. So even if, in the abstract, it makes sense to subsidize an airport in, say, Muscle Shoals, which is about 2 hours away from any major airport, at least, or Laurel, MS, which is at least 90 minutes from a major airport (and that's Gulfport-Biloxi, not a "hub"), this is a porky pork barrel program subject to all the vices thereof.

    I am generally not bothered by spending, and I can even live with subsidizing airports that don't seem that well justified (Bar Harbor, ME, anyone? I would have guessed the rich folks have their own planes). But there is a valid critique of the program.

  • The places he's proposing eliminating air service to is serious Red Country, better known as fly-over country. You know, places people don't REALLY want to go to but are forced to because they couldn't get a direct flight. Pretty typically, Dems live in big cities, Reps live in the exurbs or rural areas. Fine, cut the subsidies for Milwaukee to Appleton, works for me.

    And for god's sake (it being Xmas and all), saying that it's easy to start an airline may be the dumbest thing I've ever heard, and I teach in a high school.

  • in my fantasy world, these places have efficient train service to the nearest big city, so that Muscle Shoals residents can hop on a train and be in Birmingham in an hour. but trains are socialist, and subsidized airlines are not.

  • @Coises – "I’ve read (I don’t have a cite, so I’m not confident of this) that air travel is vastly less fuel-efficient than any other way of getting between two given points?"

    Actually modern jet aircraft average 49 passenger miles per gallon – IF THE PLANE IS FULL.

    As long as we're talking about relatively long distances and full aircraft it's more efficient to go by air than say two people driving a Chevy Tahoe from Chicago to Denver.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    buckyblue's right – Democrats usually live in the most densely populated areas, places that airlines want to service.

    So if Republicans want to cut air service to their own constituents, and leave them no choice but to make them fly in a 50 year-old Piper Cub owned by their buddy Dan, who's run 4 cars into the ground by not changing his oil, well, who's to stop them?

    If I'm a Democratic politician, I don't lift a finger.

    Republicans don't believe in government or science.

    I say ok, then don't get government involved here, and let The Laws of Gravity do their work.

    'Republicans, Dan says you need to flap harder, or the plane will never get off the ground and clear those trees."


  • I enjoyed this article enormously, for all sorts of reasons.

    "Many Americans below the age of thirty would probably be shocked to learn that the federal government used to control the entire airline industry."

    "One thing that Congress realized when passing the ADA…"

    Many Americans below the age of thirty would probably also be shocked to learn there was a time when Congress was capable of "realizing" something, and then actually doing something about it.

  • "It's not that hard. You just need a pilot and a small plane."

    How do you make a small fortune in the airline business?

    Start with a large fortune.

  • Monkey Business says:

    Well, let's see here. I live near a major airport, I don't fly to tiny airports in the middle of nowhere, and I don't give two shits about the hillbilly dumbfucks for whom both of those things are not the case. If they're going to insist on voting for people who wouldn't waste the piss to put them out if they were on fire, that's their perrogative. I, however, no longer feel any compulsion whatsoever to save these morons from themselves.

    Elections should have consequences, for both the voter and the candidate.

  • We have a solemn Personal Responsibility to get from Scrotum Creek to Boise in less than a week. By covered wagon, if necessary.

  • So screw the airlines and God forbid we support train travel. What does that leave? Cars. Okay, but if you live in Maine and need to go to California for an emergency/vacation/family function then you also need at least two weeks off for travel via car. Fantastic. Now you've lost your job for needing to take too much time off. I see what they're doing.

  • I recall a statistic from back in late 2001 or early 2002 – after the government had given the airlines a large subsidy so they wouldn't all go bankrupt at once – that the industry as a whole had not made any profit since the 1920s. That is, most years the carriers all make small profits, and every five or ten years one goes spectacularly bankrupt and drops a huge red number on the other side of the ledger. And that was after the subsidy.

  • Additionally, what about this SOPA thing? People who don't know a damned thing about the internet should not be in charge of monitoring it.

  • FAR Part 135 covers charter service. If you want to run a scheduled airline service you have to be certified under Part 121, which is much stricter.

  • I say let the subsidies lapse. If you live in the middle of nowhere, you probably don't like big cities anyway, so stay the hell out of them. Also, it's cheaper to live in rural areas, so use some of that savings to pay for higher-priced transportation. Or drive.

  • Well, if this program disappears, I guess we won't have to worry about any more political candidates from Alaska making the national scene. They're eating up almost 7% of the budget by themselves. Although I have to say that paying any attention to a program whose budget doesn't even add up to $200 million, given the current state of affairs, is the financial equivalent of rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

  • johnsmith1882 says:

    @Nancy: are you kidding? don't you realize that eliminating funding for npr will balance the federal budget, all by itself?

    i am especially enjoying the 'people get together and start an airline themselves' bit. don't you see? the airline industry in the 21st century is _just like_ the end of a micky rooney movie. by golly, we'll just get the gang together, and turn the old barn into an airline hanger! and save the orphanage. with pluck and bootstraps.

    and to agree with everyone upthread, of course eliminating funding for otherwise dead-end airports in low-density population areas would overwhelmingly affect republican voters, the ones who elect guys like micky rooney, um tom petri. so, let's do that. but it's all so much hot air, and will never happen. because republicans are always, always, _always_ against 'big government'. except when they are for it.

  • Reading this kind of blog is painful, reminding me that I cut off communications with a hometown acquaintance who used to stick a quote at the end of his neocon emails from Saint Ronnie ("If not now, when?" etc.) I would love to pepper him with entries like this. Would he get educated?

    Anyway I would be less painful than trying to argue point for point. I pity anyone who has to do that.

    What's the Vietnamese proverb? When you argue with an intelligent person, you can't win. But when you argue with a stupid person, you can't stop.

  • Wait, you're saying deregulation took place under Carter?

    Both the airline and trucking industries were deregulated during the Carter administration.

    I realize that goes against the narrative. For Reagan to be the "Bestest President evah!" Carter had to be the "Most liberal President evah!"

  • I don't fly, so I don't care. Anyway, I'm sure if I needed to, I could easily build a long-distance jet aircraft for personal use out of common household materials in a couple of days. How hard can it be, right?
    It's kind of interesting – most of us have always been stupid, as a general rule of humans; there's kind of a Normal Curve of stupidity, I think. The thing is, I can remember not too long ago (maybe 40 years or so), being willfully and gratuitously stupid was regarded as something not to be proud of. I'm figuring that Reagan turned that around, although knowing more about Alzheimer's now, I think it's more due to that than his natural dimness. How many other nations can boast that they elected so many people manifestly unfit to hold the reins of power in a mere couple centuries? America; F Yeah!

  • Anotherbozo, Carter not only deregulated, he cut spending. By a lot. There were a lot of liberals who were very upset with him over that. But up until the hostage crisis, he was looking very good and but for that, might have had a shot at winning re-election.

  • Part of the Carter Deregulation bill (I learned) was to end price-fixing by the major airlines; and the traveler has benefited from lower fares, anyway. It seems as though there were unforeseen consequences, though, to put it mildly.

    In the chapter "Optimism" in David Deutsch's in "The Beginning of Infinity," he embraces something he calls "fallibilism," which holds that "policies are always going to be flawed" because of unforeseen consequences, but that improving them is always possible. O, for a government that could keep its eye on the ball…and adjust laws as it becomes apparent how they're working out…

    But those were the good ol' days of government by meat cleaver. At least then legislation was on the chopping block, not the country itself.

  • Seriously, I don't live in those places, and I don't care. Drive a car. Move to a real city. There was a time when I would have cared, because I really believed in a common United States, but those days are long gone.

  • The trick of modern day politics, I guess, is to let the rubes who continually cut their own throat by voting Republican do themselves in whilst minimizing the damage done to those of us who know better.

  • This issue proves that being a selfish, narrow-minded dickhead isn't the exclusive domain of the rural Republican voter. I have seen more of my fellow liberals wet themselves at the thought of sticking it to these idiots than almost any issue in recent years.

    The truth is that these places in the middle of nowhere is where most of our food comes from. The EAS was created as a way to allow severely injured farmers, fisherman or anyone else here a shot at receiving life saving medical attention and make life in the vast flyover towns a little less horrible.

    As a city dweller myself, it's easy and tempting to hop on board and tell these bumpkins to die on the field after they get their arm mangled by a combine or fracture their skulls on board a trawler in Alaska but I know where my salmon fillet and whole grain bread comes from and I think the people who produce it have as much right to top quality medical care as my lilly white desk jockey ass does.

    While the Republicans seek to simply destroy everything that makes this nation work, those of us on the liberal side should take a moment to reflect on the real lives that will be lost with the loss of air service.

  • @Nunya: V. few ppl are air lifted by jet. If you're that remote it'll either be a chopper or a small bush plane that can land on anything smooth and flat. We're trying to get ppl to a major regional centre, *not* Johns-Hopkins or Cedars for emergency care.

    The discussion is about commercial air services (ie United, AA) not LifeFlight services.

    There also tend to be concessions made and provided for LifeFlight, and other emergency services (though given the selfish, mean spirited nature of the current crop it wouldn't be surprising if they floated killing such services, Austerity you know). If the discussion was about LifeFlight that would be different.

  • I am becoming quite worried about the increasing trend of criminalizing everything in the United States and around the world. While many laws are necessary, life is becoming so regulated that almost everything humans do is becoming illegal.

    Americans like to say they love freedom, but there are few freedoms left in the US. The government is tightening the noose to strangle Americans with ever-increasing nanny state laws so much that the US is starting to look like North Korea.

    Most of the following actions have been outlawed just in my lifetime:

    Fast food restaurants have been banned.


    Feeding homeless people has become a crime.


    Sex tourism has been outlawed.


    Sex offenders have been required to register with the police and are forbidden from living near schools and parks.


    Sex offenders can be be held for life under indefinite civil commitment laws even after they complete their original sentences.


    Drug users have been banned from receiving welfare or student aid.


    The US Constitution has been overruled by the Patriot Act that has legalized wiretaps without a warrant and allows the government to deport and strip any American of his or her citizenship.


    Guantanamo has been used to keep and torture suspected terrorists without trial.


    Domestic violence abusers having been banned from having guns.


    Mandatory seatbelt use laws have been enacted.


    Seatbelt checkpoints are being conducted.


    DUI and drug checkpoints have been allowed.



    Governments are now allowed to seize the property of suspected prostitution clients, drug users, and drunk drivers.


    "John TV

  • J. Dryden Says:

    "Imagine a GOP lawmaker/bobble-head beginning a statement with "Why should taxpayers have to foot the bill for–" *or* "Do you really trust the government to–"

    Now: which services can one *not* imagine a GOP lawmaker including in either statement? Very few, and the ones I came up with all have one thing in common: Bullets. GOP lawmakers are only OK with the government providing services that require the regular use of bullets. Which, given how much of their rhetoric is devoted to deriding the government as clown-headed incompetents, I find bemusing."

    Saying and doing are quite opposite things. No GOP lawmaker has a problem with massive subsidies to anybody voting for them or paying them (even St. Ron Paul brings home the pork and subsidized flood insurance).

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