Rural airport subsidies and the deficit

The New York Times has a story this afternoon datelined at an airport in rural Pennsylvania, but it may as well be Ogdensburg:

Each year, Washington’s Essential Air Service program pays about $1.6 million for three daily flights between here and Dulles International Airport outside of Washington. Most flights have 10 or fewer people on board and the airport is virtually deserted. Many travelers drive two hours to Pittsburgh, Pa., where fares are often lower and flights are plentiful.

Replace Dulles with Albany International Airport and Pittsburgh with Syracuse, and that’s the picture in Ogdensburg.  (Actually, the subsidy is slightly lower at around $1 million.)

What the two airports and a plane-load of rural airports nationwide have in common is a big federal subsidy and very low ridership.

At a moment when Congress appears ready to endanger the nation’s ability to pay its bills over the future of the deficit, rural air subsidies go untouched.

Senator Chuck Schumer, one of the subsidy’s biggest defenders has said countless times the airports are critical to rural economies.

But, argues the New York Times article, cutting these and other largely non-essential subsidies could take a big bite out of the national debt:

The subsidy programs are as varied as warehouses that allow farmers to store cotton and peanuts at government expense until prices rise and an estimated $100 million tax break for owners of Nascar racetracks.

Various private and government studies show that nearly $1.8 trillion over the next five years could be saved by eliminating or reducing spending on some of the subsidies.

I’ll be honest – flying out of Ogdensburg is way too expensive and time-consuming (more time spent on layovers) for me.  I fly from Syracuse generally.

Could you live without the rural airports in Ogdensburg, Massena, Saranac Lake?  Or are they critical North Country infrastructure?

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36 Comments on “Rural airport subsidies and the deficit”

  1. Pete Klein says:

    Personally, I could live without airports – period.
    I haven’t been on a commercial plane in almost 30 years and have no desire to go on one ever again. They are too crowded, you can’t smoke on them and you have the security to be bothered by.
    I used to love to fly. My most enjoyable trip was in the early 60’s on a flight from LA to Detroit. From LA to Chicago, we flew over the Grand Canyon – great view from 33,000 – and there were only about 6 passengers onboard. From Chicago to Detroit we were jam packed with business men heading home for the weekend.
    The no smoking I can put up with. I will not put up with overcrowding and the security aggravation.
    Why would I want to go anyplace when I live in the Adirondacks?

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  2. Bret4207 says:

    Rural air service isn’t essential. That’s a crock. How many people actually fly into or out of Ogdensburg, Massena or Malone? Personally, having lived in the Oburg area for 16 years now, I don’t know a single soul that has ever admitted to flying into or out of Oburg on the scheduled flights. Everyone either goes to Syracuse or Ottawa. I’m sure OBPA thinks it’s essential and the Chamber of Commerce probably does too. But the cost out weighs any benefit I can think of.

    In general terms I’m of the opinion that most subsidies are no more than vote buying schemes using taxpayer funds. I can see certain subsidies for critical infrastructure, but grain storage, ethanol and NASCAR (!!!Give me a break!) are simply wasted tax payer dollars. Better we use that money to target care for the elderly, the truly infirm and our veterans. Maybe we could pay down some the the deficit too.

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  3. Mervel says:

    Hmmm, no Ogdensburg airport or no social security check for my parents, which will I choose….

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  4. Josh says:

    I’ve used the Ogdensburg and Lake Clear airports a couple of times. They offer a great service, as does Cape Air. But honestly, I know that it’s a luxury, not necessary.

    What is the stimulative effect of supporting the airports compared with other public transportation options?

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  5. TomL says:

    I fly several times a year, but I never fly out of Ogdensburg or Massena. I fly out of Ottawa or Syracuse, as do all of my colleagues that fly. Syracuse & Ottawa are cheaper and save time.

    I can see no real justification for the rural route subsidy. Indeed, according to the stats in the Watertown Times, these airports have less than 10 travelers a day. Cut the nonessential ‘essential air service’ as part of the general deficit reduction. This would be easily one of the least painful cuts.

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  6. Jim Bullard says:

    I flew out of Massena once or twice in my Army days (1964-67) haven’t since then. We fly occasionally to visit family, about 5 times in the last 10 years. Initially we flew out of Ottawa but then the border security got too weird and we have flown out of Albany or Syracuse since. We looked into flying from Massena but it nearly doubled the ticket cost to our destination so we opted to drive farther. It’s a luxury as far as I’m concerned and I wouldn’t miss it. I wish they’d subsidize my post office instead. I am going to miss that.

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  7. scratchy says:

    Time to pull the plug. Any airport should be a self-sustaining operation that doesnt rely on government funding.

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  8. tootightmike says:

    Flying out of Ottawa is always nice because it gives one the opportunity to be in a great place like Ottawa…Syracuse, not so much…

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  9. Gary says:

    Here is a win-win situation for you. If Chuckie thinks these airports are critical to local economies then give $500,000 to local governments to spend on improving our economies and cut the deficit $500,000.

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  10. Bret4207 says:

    Mervel, did you notice that in the current squabble the first thing to be affected are SS and Military pay? Funny how The King didn’t threaten to cut off foreign aid, Foodstamps, Medicaid, ethanol subsidies, arts programs, etc.

    Politics as usual.

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  11. Bret4207 says:

    I was talking with a big wig for one of the railroads a few years back. Got onto passenger rail vs air service. He said that if rail service was subsidized like air service then we’d have a vibrant passenger rail industry again. I forget all that he said, but I recall the figures he gave were staggering. His claim was that almost all commercial airports are simply money pits for Federal spending, things like runways, lighting, control systems etc. are all addressed on the public dollar. At that time he was talking hundreds of millions a year. He didn’t have much good to say about Amtrak. I believe the phrase “incompetent retards” might have been used…

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  12. It's Still All Bush's Fault says:

    Flown out of Watertwon and Looney Field in the past. Not convenient at all. Lay-overs longer than the drive to either Syracuse or Albany would have been. I could possibly understand providing subsidy for one airport in the area, but not three (Massena, Watertown, Ogdensburgh).

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  13. Mervel says:

    That is true Bret and I know that there are scare tactics being used.

    However we should not under play the severity of this debt problem and playing around with people’s lives for political reasons to me is not healthy at all for our country.

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  14. john says:

    Consider that a 200 dollar round-trip plane ticket form Ogdensburg to Albany and back actually costs about 1,500 dollars … 1,300 dollars is government subsidy. I just read this morning that over 500 passengers made this trip in the past year. Do the math. How on Earth can we be cutting so much basic human service in this country and justify this kind of corporate welfare? Everyone is quick to beat up on Amtrack for the subsidy that they receive from government. Compare it to Airline infrastructure subsidy. A little internal consistency in the conservative narrative about government spending, earmarks, subsidy, contracting etc. would be refreshing!

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  15. MrSandwich says:

    Thank you for bringing this topic up Brian. We could do with one centralized airport here. Not Massena, O-burg, Potsdam and Malone. 30 minutes by rental car would get you from a central location to any of these towns. Every time I hear about one of these local airports getting money for “expansion” it irks me. There was a great story on CNN a coupld years back about the airport in John Murtha’s district. I can’t remember the statistics but they were staggering. Pork….

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  16. Gary says:

    While we’re pondering what we “Need” and don’t need here in our area,

    Do we really need 3 hospitals here in the north country ? I’m referring to Potsdam, Massena and Ogdensburg. It seems to me that one really good one would be sufficient and just have small local clinics in the surrounding towns.

    I’m not saying to fire all our Doctors and nurses, I’m just saying that it seems that one centralized hospital would be more efficient, and cost effective.

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  17. Fred Goss says:

    Maybe we should limit this rural airport subsidy to ones that arent within two hours of a major airport as we are here…I’m sure there are some, but the budget problem is while all of us could go through the federal book and find numerous programs like this one, put together they dont amount to pocket change in the overall budget. We’ll need some adjustment to the major entitlement programs and some revenue increases (taxes) to bring the federal books somewhere into line. I dont worry about a “balanced budget amendment” since I’ve been old enough to notice, maybe 50 years or so, the federal budget has been “balanced” maybe 4 or 5 times..and yet we’re all still here.

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  18. Massena Town Supervisor says:

    Funny how a lot of the comments come from people who readily admit they don’t fly at all or very often. For example, you can’t fly more cheaply out of Ottawa or Montreal to a US destination. It’s simply impossible. I agree we don’t need four airports within 50 miles of each other but the problem isn’t the subsidy. The problem is the subsidy for all of the airports. FAA should force consolidation by only funding one of the airports. Of course, Massena is by far the best choice, and not because its where I live. We have the best facilties, the only modern instrumentation and room to expand.
    The other huge problem with the FAA is typical of bloated government: if, for example, Massena decided to close its airport, the town would have to repay the millions of dollars it has received over the past 20 years for airport improvements because the airport is no longer open. How stupid is that? Where is the incentive to close underutilized airports?

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  19. Massena Town Supervisor says:

    Sorry, forgot to signmy previous post.

    Joseph Gray, Massena Town Supervisor

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  20. tootightmike says:

    I took a trip to Chicago and New Orleans by train a few years ago. We got a sleeper compartment, and ate sit-down meals in the dining car. It was so much nicer than flying, it doesn’t even make sense to compare.
    In a few years, when the price and availability of oil becomes impossible, we’ll wish that we’d subsidised the rails instead of the airlines.

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  21. john says:

    @Masssena Town Supervisor: REALLY? 360,000 dollars to ferry 548 people on planes to Albany so they don’t have to drive for four hours is not a problem? I guess we needn’t wonder why we have budget problems in this country.

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  22. Mervel says:

    But the supervisor has a good point. We don’t know what would happen if we just had one decent regional airport in the North Country? The cost of closing the airports should also be considered.

    But the other issue is we can’t have it both ways, all I have heard the past several years is the need for government investment in infrastructure as a good use of government money, airports, roads, bridges, ports, high speed rail; are all infrastructure. If airport infrastructure is a waste well then maybe the others are also, airport investments are exactly what government spending should be used on in my opinion.

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  23. Bret4207 says:

    Funny, I just saw the article in the Watertown Times about Cape Airs fantastic upswing in passengers from Oburg. 548 in June! That made me do a little checking since it seems fantastically high. 548 passengers over 30 days (hard to believe every day was equally busy), 18.6 passengers a day. 3 flights a day, 6 passengers per flight. Cool! When you add in Massena and Watertown it must be they had no passenger traffic to speak of though since Cape Air, as far as I know, flies the Cessna 402, a 9 passenger airplane. The picture of the 402 looks just like the plane that flies over my farm 3x a day. Considering the fantastic numbers Oburg got, I mean the planes were almost PACKED every single flight, then it seems Supervisor Grays assessment is dead wrong and Oburg must be the hub of choice! Why, if Massena and W-town had any passengers at all then Cape Air must have needed to add aircraft to the line up, but everything I found says it’s just one flight- Massena to Oburg to W-town to Albany or vice versa. And the essential air service contract states the planes must land at each airport every flight, even if there’s no passengers or freight.

    The other alternative is, of course, that Cape Air is padding it’s numbers at a time when the EAS contract is up on the block.

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  24. Massena Town Supervisor says:

    Bret 4207: I think you missed Massena’s nunmbers in the WDT article. Even though O’Burg increased, Massena did as well and the numbers here are quite a bit larger. Imagine what they would be if only one airport was open. If the ‘Burg was the better choice, I would say so and gladly drive 35 miles to jump on a plane there (mcuh better than driving to Watertown or Saranac). But that is just not the case.
    So, check your numbers again Bret. Here’s what I cut and pasted from that article:

    “Cape Air reports that it has seen a large increase in passengers at Ogdensburg’s and Massena’s international airports since adding flights to Boston in March.

    “In June, Cape Air had its best month yet, with a total of 548 passengers using the Ogdensburg airport. That’s up from 376 in June 2010. The increase comes just a few months after Cape Air began offering flights to Boston. Similar numbers came out of Massena, where total passengers were up to 707 for the month of June compared with 517 in June 2010.”

    Just sayin’.

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  25. Massena Town Supervisor says:

    Oh, and people don’t want the “milk run” flights that stop at each airport. Given that landings and take-offs are the most dangerous part of flying, we’re probably better off with separate flights. Should we insist on all three airports? IDK, but Watertown, by the way, is only about 50 miles from Syracuse, and they will soon be serviced by another carrier flying them directly to Chicago.

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  26. Mervel says:

    I used to use Ogdensburg when US Air flew there. It was great you could fly to Pittsburgh and connect pretty much anywhere. But most people don’t like changing airlines at the hubs. Ditto on the milk runs you want to get in and go to the hub not stop in watertown etc.

    Which is why the one I really like is the Saranac Lake plan that goes directly to Boston. Besides it is the smallest commercial plane I have ever been on and you can sit beside the pilot if you are lucky .

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  27. Bret4207 says:

    Joe, I’m still wondering how they manage to cram all those people onto a 9 passenger plane! Either the info they post is incorrect or they’re running a separate plane to each airport. The plane flies over my farm 3x a day from Oburg, has for years. Now, maybe I’m seeing a different plane than Cape Air. Do you know if they are running separate flights to each airport? They never did in the past.

    I know the landings and take offs are the dangerous part, but that’s part of the contract.

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  28. Bret4207 says:

    BTW Joe, Massena is only 30ish miles from Malone, a much larger and relatively thriving town compared to Massena. Maybe Malone and Oburg are more centrally located and the common sense solution?

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  29. Mervel says:

    I would take issue with Malone thriving compared to Massena.

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  30. Bret4207 says:

    Well, maybe it’s in the eye of the beholder, but having spent a lot of time in both towns over the last 20 years Malone seems far healthier to me. The Massena of the 70’s and early 80’s is long gone, which is a shame.

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  31. Mervel says:

    True. The downtown certainly looks better. I think Malone though is mainly a government town there is little private industry there.

    I was thinking the main hook for a airport in Massena is the Canadian market, much like Plattsburgh.

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  32. D. Murphy says:

    I want to repeat what one poster said above; it is funny how the majority of the people that say this subsidy and service are unnecessary. For people who never fly, or only fly for vacations once or twice a year, that is probably correct.
    But for those of us that must commute to New England, or downstate for work, this service is an absolute necessity. Until recently, (and starting again shortly), I fly out of our regional airports every Monday, and return every Friday. I can leave my home in Colton at 5 in the morning and in Boston before 8. Without this service, I would not be able to live in the North Country.
    I have 3 people in my company that do the same thing, and we have gotten to know the 10 to 15 people at each local airport that we see every Monday doing the same thing.
    And for those of you that are going to say “well go live where you work, this isn’t our problem”, if these services go away, that is exactly what will happen. We commuters will move out of northern NY, and we will take out income tax revenue with us, along with the money that we generate out of state and pump into our local economy.

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  33. Bret4207 says:

    Mr Murphy, so the public should underwrite your travel expenses? Without the subsidy that ticket would run you about $1500.00, each way. Is it right for the public to have to up $1300.00 of your costs?

    BTW- according to the WDT this AM the EAS contracts here are good to go.

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  34. D. Murphy says:

    You make it sound like you are personally contributing $100 of dollars a week into my bank account.

    There are somewhere around 140 million us tax payers. This $1 million subsidy cost each taxpayer about 71 cents. Don’t act like it is taking food out of your month.

    These subsidies allow these airports to remain open (no subsidies, no airlines, no airports), how many people does that employ? It also allows 100’s of people who make good salaries to remain in the area, how much money does this pump into the local economies?

    There is a lot of wasteful spending in NY, but this is not part of it.

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  35. Bret4207 says:

    I didn’t say that. But are you and your buddies that fly out each week putting that million a year that it costs to keep the EAS at Oburg back into this economy that justifies it? I suppose I could also ask about your carbon footprint, but that’s too much for me to stomach, so let’s just stick to the subject. Do you really think that money is returned in wages, taxes, etc.? It doens’t seem likely to me.

    To be clear, personally I don’t care where you live, that’s your choice and I would never seriously suggest you move elsewhere. But arguments like yours always seem more than a bit self serving to me. And of course this isn’t the only place such an argument is made, so I hope you don;t take it personally.

    BTW, if statistics are to be believed about 50% of those 140 million tax payers effectively pay no taxes at the Federal level.

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  36. tourpro says:

    Everyone knows that EAS has become a pork-barrel program.

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