TV-6 Investigates: Burlington’s taxpayer funded flights


BURLINGTON, Iowa. (KWQC) — If you’ve ever shopped for a plane ticket you know a flight may be cheaper at an airport further away. That makes it challenging for airports to offer regular commercial service; airlines need passengers to justify the planes. At certain small airports, taxpayers help cover the airline’s costs, keeping those flights in the air.

Taxpayers help pay the cost of an airline ticket at 113 airports across the country. The closest to KWQC is the Southeast Iowa Regional Airport in Burlington. The airline serving them, gets $2.3 million a year in tax money to operate 24 flights between Chicago O’Hare, and Lambert St. Louis airports. It’s known as the Essential Air Service program, and while Burlington considers it essential, Congress has tried to kill the program entirely.

Each day of the week, a small plane lands at the Southeast Iowa Regional Airport. On this day, Justin and Ally Sapp of Burlington were waiting for their flight to O’Hare. They’re heading to Philadelphia to visit family.

Justin Sapp said, “It’s cheaper, it’s easier for us to go, it used to be you’d have to drive four plus hours to go to Chicago or St. Louis, so this is a little more convenient.”

Justin said it’s the first time he’s flown out of Burlington. Normally they would drive to Chicago to get a flight. Ally said coming home will be much easier.

“When we came back and after we’d flown in we had another three and a half hour drive after we’d flown back,” said Ally Sapp.

Your tax dollars partially paid for their flight. $162 per passenger. The flight is subsidized as part of the Essential Air Service program.

Southeast Iowa Regional Airport Board Chair Charles Walsh said, “Without it, we probably wouldn’t have commercial air service.”

He said EAS is critical to the Burlington region and its economy.

“People aren’t coming by train, bus, highways, or the other alternatives, air, that’s the only way corporate people can get here,” said Walsh.

He pushed for expanding the service last year when the U.S. Department of Transportation was re-working Burlington’s contract. Walsh wanted six additional flights to O’Hare. It would have increased the taxpayer cost to $3.1 million.

“It’s almost an impossibility, we only have x amount of seats on the airplane, and we’re probably running 85 percent capacity,” said Walsh.

The DOT ruled against the higher cost option. Data provided by the airport for June, July, and August show the flights ran on average about 3/4’s full for Chicago and half full for St. Louis.

TV-6 Investigates booked a flight from Burlington to St. Louis in early October. Three seats were occupied by passengers leaving five empty. Empty seats have been a big concern in Congress for those who view the Essential Air Service program as a waste.

California Republican Tom McClintock said, “If the House is to live up to the promises the Republican majority made to the American people to bring spending under control, some tough choices are going to have to be made. This amendment however is not one of them.”

McClintock proposed eliminating funding for the EAS program in 2012. He said the flights ran empty, and the airport’s served were within driving distance of major hubs.

McClintock sought “To put an end to the so-called Essential Air Service which lavishly subsidizes some of the least essential air services in the country.”

Former Republican Iowa Representative Tom Latham pushed back. He said Congress passed a number of reforms to cut the program’s cost.

“Removed the requirement that larger more expensive planes be used in the program,” said Latham.

Congress required airports less than 175 miles from a hub to maintain an average of at least 10 passengers a day. It capped the subsidy to $200 per passenger.

Latham said, “In a place like Iowa it plays an essential role as far as the economic development of those communities.”

The entire Iowa delegation voted against McClintock’s proposal which ultimately failed. But Walsh is aware of the pressure. Air Choice One recently announced it would offer flights to Minneapolis connecting through Mason City. Walsh said airport users wanted that route. He hopes it will help grow Burlington’s passenger load.

“I think that could help us get that other flight to Chicago that we need, and St. Louis is growing very strong with Southwest,” said Walsh.

The Sapps had no idea their flight was taxpayer-funded. Justin said as long as the service helps communities, he’s ok with his tax dollars keeping the flights around.

“If it has its advantages I’d say yeah, it’d be worth it as long as it helps people, why not,” said Sapp.

The government released its latest report for the airport subsidy caps at the end of June. Almost half of the airports that have to keep their subsidy below $200 have not. That includes Mason City. The June report showed just over 13,000 passengers have used Burlington’s EAS service. That’s on pace to beat Burlington’s total passenger traffic two years ago of 13,200 passengers.

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