Essential Air Service in northern Michigan

Each year, millions of dollars are funneled from the federal government to commercial airlines, enticing them to serve small, rural airports.
Each year, millions of dollars are funneled from the federal government to commercial airlines, enticing them to serve small, rural airports.

The program is called Essential Air Service or EAS.

Three airports in northern Michigan participate in this program.

But some have wondered if the service worth the price.

More than $5 million is spent to entice airlines to bring service to three airports: Pellston Regional, Alpena County Regional, and Manistee County Blacker.

For 2014, the total Essential Air Service budget for the country is more than $250 million.

The money comes through EAS.

The EAS program began after deregulation of the airline industry in the 1970â??s.

In it, airlines propose a service schedule and what itâ??ll cost, and the government pays them a flat rate per year.

Essentially, because there wonâ??t be enough passengers for the airlines to cover their costs and still offer competitive fares, Uncle Sam makes up the difference.

Manisteeâ??s airport director says the investment of tax dollars is worth it.

"I believe it is, but in the current political climate, sometimes that message is not received as well as in other cases," says Barry Lind, Manager at Manistee County Blacker Airport.ã?? "If you look at the number of dollars that are being subsidized versus the total economic impact, the return on investment is there."

On a per-passenger level, the subsidies look like this:

For the year 2013, 27,281 passengers flew through Pellston Regional Airport.

Pellston receives the benefit of about $1-million through EAS, so thatâ??s costing taxpayers about $37 for each passenger.

At Alpena County Regional Airport, their $2.1 million equals EAS covering $136 for each of the almost 16-thousand passengers last year.

And in Manistee, Public Charters collected $371 for each person it flew between Manistee and Chicago based on its $2 million subsidy.

But there are other numbers that come into play here.

A recent study by the Boston-based Economic Development Research Group shows the Manistee airport contributes more than $16-million to the local economy.

"So when Iâ??m working with a group out of Chicago or a group out of St. Louis, to come to Manistee, we always let them know during the sales process that there is service available if theyâ??d like information we provide that to them on how to find it, how to book it, and we use that as a major tool," says Doug Bell, General Manager at Manistee National Golf and Resort.

"So the airport is a part of the vital services of Manistee County that is not only doing a great job today in terms of economic return, but I think its importance will become even more significant as we bring new and more people to enjoy Manistee County," says Tim Ervin a consultant with the Alliance for Economic Success in Manistee.

Pellstonâ??s airport manager says his airport can lay claim to a more than 30-million dollar impact on his community.

In Manistee, the goal is to be back to the numbers when Frontier Airlines flew into Manistee Blacker.

That year, 2011, more than 20,000 passengers came through.

Frontier ended its service agreement with the airport in March of 2012, after just one year.

The airline ended similar service at other small airports around the country, citing financial reasons.

"In some ways our challenge is: what you have you donâ??t appreciate until, potentially, some day you donâ??t have it," says Lind.

Currently, Manistee Blacker Airport is in the first year of a four year contract with Public Charters to provide commercial air service.

Lind is hopeful that by the end of the contract, the airport will be able to attract additional carriers and additional destinations.