What Are Essential Air Services & Why Do They Matter?

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The Essential Air Services (EAS) program is a little known but vital part of the air transport regime in the United States. It underwrites air services to scores of small towns across the United States. The program helps keep Americans on the move and communities connected.

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The Essential Air Services program underwrites flights to scores of towns across the United States. Photo: Boutique Air

Before the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA) came into force in 1978, the now-defunct Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) ruled over commercial airline operations in the United States with an iron fist. The CAB “managed” which airline would fly on what route. It was inefficient and anti-competitive, but it did help ensure all corners of the United States got an air service.

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The ADA loosened those restrictions. Airlines could choose where they wanted to fly and what to charge. Naturally, the airlines migrated towards the profitable routes. Among the routes to go were marginal services to smaller centers. That’s not a phenomenon exclusive to the United States. It has been repeated the world over.

Essential Air Services program a by-product of deregulation

But the United States Government had the foresight to implement the EAS program. It guaranteed that small communities that had air services before deregulation kept a minimal level of scheduled air service.

Under the EAS program, the United States Government will subsidize two round trips a day with 30 to 50-seat aircraft, or additional services using smaller aircraft, usually to a medium or large hub airport. The Department of Transportation administers the program. Presently, 60 communities in Alaska and 115 towns across the remainder of the United States benefit from the EAS program.

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Generally, eligible towns have to be at least 210 miles from the nearest medium or large hub airport. Usually, the Department of Transportation issues two-year contracts. However, four-year contracts are becoming more common.

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The EAS program looks at towns at least 210 miles from a medium or large hub airport. Photo: Denver Airport News Room

Boutique Air takes essential air services to Alamosa

An example is the service provided by San Francisco-based Boutique Air between Alamosa, Colorado, and Denver. Alamosa is in southern Colorado and has a population of around 8,100. Between October 1, 2018, through to September 30, 2020, Boutique Air will receive US$5,840,440 from the United States Government to operate 24 nonstop round trips per week to Denver. The flights operate using eight or nine-seat Pilatus PC-12 aircraft. Working EAS services is a core business for Boutique Air.

When looking to implement or renew an essential air service to a particular town, the Department of Transportation issues a request for a proposal from prospective carriers. The Department looks at six criteria. Firstly, the airline needs to have demonstrated reliability in providing an air service. Second, does the airline have an interline agreement with a larger airline at the hub airport? Third, what is the extent of any interline agreements? Will it allow for checked baggage? Single reservations? Fourth, what are the views and preferences of local users and elected officials? Fifth, how and to what extent does the airline plan to market its service? Finally, how much subsidy is the airline asking for?

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Boutique Air’s Pilatus PC-12 aircraft used at Alamosa. Photo: Boutique Air

What the Department of Transportation looks for in EAS proposals

Boutique Air was up against California Pacific Airlines and Denver Air Connection (Key Lime) when chasing the rights to operate EAS to Alamosa. Boutique’s proposal was the least expensive. But according to the Department of Transportation, it won because its proposal “aligns well with all six carrier selection criteria.”

Boutique Air has a proven record of providing reliable EAS at Alamosa, has interline ticket and baggage agreements in place with a larger air carrier (United Airlines), and has included a marketing plan in its proposal. The community of Alamosa and its County Commissioners are supportive of Boutique Air’s re-selection, for a new two-year term. Additionally, Boutique’s proposal sought the lowest subsidy of the proposals submitted for consideration.

The Boutique Air service in and out of Alamosa is one example of scores of similar contracts the United States Government has with airlines to keep small towns connected. EAS is a vital program that gets overshadowed by turf wars between the big airlines on the juicy routes. But courtesy of the United States Government, hundreds of thousands of people have access to a hub airport and from there the world.

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