A ‘Essential’ Program Well Worth Cutting

Clovis city commissioners have voted, unanimously, “to accept a proposal from Boutique Airlines [sic] for 18 federally subsidized round-trip flights weekly — 12 to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and six to Denver International Airport.”

The flights will be funded by the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, a boondoggle Errors of Enchantment has examined before. Created in 1978, when Congress greatly loosened federal control of air travel, EAS “was put into place to guarantee that small communities that were served by … carriers before airline deregulation maintain a minimal level of scheduled air service.”

Now marking its 40th decade of existence, EAS has long attracted criticism from advocates for fiscal sanity. The Heartland Institute has called it possibly “the single most wasteful program in the government,” and Reason considers EAS a “testament to the permanence of temporary government programs” and “anything but essential.” Last year, the Trump administration tried euthanasia, noting that “flights are not full and have high subsidy costs per passenger,” and several “EAS-eligible communities are relatively close to major airports, and communities that have EAS could be served by other existing modes of transportation.”

In what came as a surprise to no one who monitors D.C.’s spending addiction, EAS survived. In addition to Clovis, EAS will continue to spread the cash for service in Carlsbad and Silver City. (In 2016, citing “low passenger counts,” Boutique Air terminated its contract with Los Alamos County.) In total, the program “subsidizes commuter and certificated air carriers to serve approximately 60 communities in Alaska and 115 communities in the lower 48 contiguous states.”

With the national debt topping $21 trillion — and unfunded liabilities amounting to many trillions more — there is no doubt that a severe fiscal reckoning is on its way. And when reality can no longer be ignored, it’s a safe bet that programs like EAS will be the first to go. (Sacrosanctly secure, Social Security and Medicare will be fiercely defended.) So it’s profoundly irresponsible for politicians in small-town New Mexico to greedily grab the cash and hope the subsidies go on forever. A better strategy would be to pursue economic-development reforms that will create more wealth and jobs in their communities, and thus eliminate the need for air carriers to operate with heavy taxpayer support.

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