How do small towns get flights? Thanks to Essential Air Service

If you look on a map, Page, Arizona, looks quite remote. It is 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 major cities.

And yet, this city of about 7,500 people offers two daily flights to Phoenix thanks to the Essential Air Service program, a subsidy that allows small communities to stay connected to the national air network.

These flights help keep Page’s tourism-dependent economy afloat, said Michael Schneider, regional sales and marketing manager for Aramark, which operates Colorado River tours from 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 tourists to come to keep the economy alive on Page. That’s what most people work in, our restaurants, our hotels, our tourism-type businesses. That’s pretty much what on how the city works.”

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What is Essential Air Service?

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

EAS was developed in response to airline deregulation legislation 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. .

“Some markets may not be able to get air service without subsidies,” he said. “It has allowed some communities to have air service that they wouldn’t have without this Essential Air Service program in place.”

What are Essential Air Service flights like?

It can really vary. There are minimum requirements for aircraft size and frequency, but operators have a lot of leeway when it comes to the aircraft they use and the type of service they offer on board.

“You may not get all the benefits of flying on a regional jet or even a larger airliner, but it is generally a reliable service and in many case, the flight is not that long,” Friedenzohn said.

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

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

A Contour Airlines ERJ-135 jet, which the carrier uses for Page-Phoenix flights

How can travelers book Essential Air Service flights?

It also depends on the operator, but most flights can be booked like any other airline.

“In today’s world, you book on the website if you can, and obviously everyone uses the internet these days or an app,” Friedenzohn said. “For some people it may be unique because people don’t know the airline in question.”

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How are communities eligible?

EAS-eligible communities in the continental United States must have received grants between September 30, 2010 and September 30, 2011 and must be at least 70 miles by car 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 from the nearest larger airport. The subsidy is limited to $200 per passenger on average, except for communities located more than 210 miles from major 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 Ministry of Transport website has more technical details on the qualifications.

“It’s important that people (who) live in the community can connect to major flights,” said Schneider, who lives in Phoenix. “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 the EAS service allows people in small towns to make those connections easier.

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

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

Friedenzohn, of Embry-Riddle, said the DOT sometimes relaxes those requirements on a case-by-case basis.

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

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