How the Experts Think We Can Improve Small Community Air Service

The problem of declining small city service is far from being resolved, and I have a few posts lined up to address the issue. Recently, I wrote about a couple dozen small US cities that are at risk of losing their air service. Today, I’m looking more at the solutions. Specifically, the Department of Transportation (DOT) decided to put together a working group to tackle this. The result of that group’s study was published in May under the tantalizing title “Report of the Working Group On Improving Air Service to Small Communities.” The 40-page report was so thrilling it will undoubtedly be turned into a screenplay soon enough. But since they’re still in discussions about that (look for Bruce Willis to play the washed-out airport manager/bad guy-killer), I figured it would still be worth it for me to break this down.

But before we get into the document, who was in the group? The full list is on page 34 of the document, but it was an amalgamation of various stakeholders. You have small airport managers like those at College Station, Texas and Roanoke, Virginia. There were also larger airport representatives like someone from Pittsburgh since that’s where many small service flights originate. There were small airline representatives including the head of planning for Cape Air and the CEO of Southern Airways Express (a man I’ve interviewed for a future post) as well as large ones including someone from United. Throw in some government officials, a union rep, and consultants and you have a fairly-robust group to tackle this issue.

So what’d they come up with? Well, there were 21 suggestions, though most fall into two categories.

  1. Resolve the pilot shortage

  2. Bolster the Essential Air Service program

With that, let’s dive right in.

The Pilot Shortage Much has been written about the looming shortage of pilots to fly commercial airplanes (including some by me). This paper, in fact, spends a fair bit of time going over the issue. You have everything from the recent rule requiring significantly more hours for pilots before being allowed in a commercial cockpit to the issue of mass-retirements coming up as large chunks of pilots hit the mandated retirement age of 65. I’m not going to get into the details myself here, but you can certainly read the paper for more. Instead, I’ll just leave this chart from a study done by the University of North Dakota.

In airline hierarchy, the pilots flying big airplanes long distances get paid the most. The ones in the trenches flying 8 short hops a day in grueling weather conditions get paid the least. So when there’s a pilot shortage, it’s the little guys that suffer first. We’ve seen many regional airlines have to cut back flying due to pilot issues. Some have tried to boost pay to attract more pilots, but that also has a negative impact on costs. Small cities find themselves squeezed out either way as some flying becomes impossible while what remains simply becomes more expensive.

The solution, you might expect, is that the government should back down on the increase in pilot hours. That’s the obvious thing that many have pointed to, but this paper takes a more nuanced approach. This study doesn’t suggest a blanket roll-back, but instead it looked at ways to soften it. For example, there’s a suggestion that the FAA allow pilots to get commercial jobs with fewer hours if they take “academic pathways” that ensure they’re getting more rigorous training. There’s also a suggestion that pilots be credited for additional hours if they go through airline or aircraft-specific training programs. The idea here is that with some types of training, pilots will be better-prepared earlier.

This will certainly help open the spigot earlier for some people, and it may encourage more people to start flying, but it’s not going to solve the problem alone. There still needs to be more people deciding to be pilots. One suggestion there is to increase funding for loans so that aspiring pilots can afford to eat (and not just ramen) while they train. Then defer loan payments until they get hired on with an airline and can actually repay it. I like plans like this since it’s just common sense. I don’t think it solves everything, but it seems likely to help.

Then there’s the Essential Air Service program. There is a ton wrong with it, and I’m not convinced it can be fixed. This group, however, seems to think it can be. To start, they argue that the program should be fully-funded on an ongoing basis. The more uncertainty in the program, the harder it is to get reliable operations. And then, by the way, if the operations aren’t reliable, then the locals should be able to step in and force DOT to review and take action if needed.

Here’s something that might seem counter-intuitive, but the group says DOT needs to really tighten up on the rules of the program If airports aren’t meeting the requirements, then the subsidy disappears. No more waivers should be allowed to drag the process out. Some cities should be cut.

And for some cities, maybe a traditional subsidy isn’t the right way to do it. The group likes the idea of expanding the Alternative EAS program to give more flexibility to communities so they can find the best way to connect to the rest of the world.

Those might have been the two biggest areas of focus, but there were other ideas. Some touched on fixing, funding, and growing the Small Community Air Service Development Program (SCASDP) while others went further afield. One of my favorites is the idea that the feds should put together tax incentives to encourage manufacturers to develop a new sub-50 seat aircraft. I’m not sure if the economics would make sense, but I still like the idea of trying to fan the flames of innovation to make small city service more viable.

You can read through the document to see everything if you’d like. Here’s that link again. Do I like these ideas? Sure. This can’t hurt. But do I think it’s going to solve all the problems? Nope. Not by a long shot. And so the search continues…. I will say, I liked what I was hearing out of Southern Air Express. I’ll hopefully have that post up in the near future.


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