On any given day at O'Hare International Airport's bustling Terminal 3 -- amid the jumbo jets and superliners taxiing in and out of the gates -- there’s a tiny nine-seat Cessna Caravan waiting to board passengers headed to Decatur, Ill.
It’s paid for with federal money: More than $2.6 million a year in tax dollars this year alone.
That Cessna is part of a network of 112 air routes operated by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Service program, or EAS, which was created by Congress in 1978 as a temporary way to help maintain air service to smaller cities and towns across the country.
This year alone, the government will pay a total of more than $222 million in subsidies to airlines nationwide to make sure that people in remote or isolated locations have access to commercial air travel. The U.S. Department of Transportation publishes a list of all the EAS-subsidized flights to towns and cities nationwide, along with the amounts of money paid to maintain commercial air service for each community.
But in the case of some of these routes, including Decatur, the town just isn’t that remote or isolated. In fact, it takes an hour or less to drive from to Decatur to any of three commercial airports in Springfield, Champaign, or Bloomington/Normal, where a passenger can choose from a variety of commercial routes to Chicago, St. Louis and beyond without the federal government paying for it.
So in the current climate of budget cuts and sequestration, that $2.6 million can seem significant.
Essential Air Service "is not essential at all," said Steve Stanek, a Research Fellow at The Heartland Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Chicago. "Decatur is the home of Archer Daniels Midland, [which] also benefits from having this little airport there [in Decatur]," said Stanek. "They can bring in clients and people they might want to interview for jobs and things."
And in fact Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), an international food-processing corporation with its headquarters in Decatur, wrote a letter to the U.S. DOT saying it "enthusiastically supports" the subsidized air routes to and from Decatur.
"ADM employees utilize and enjoy traveling with Air Choice One thanks to their Chicago O’Hare and Lambert St. Louis connections which make it significantly easier for catching connecting flights," an ADM official wrote to the head of the EAS program.
Air Choice One is the company that currently operates the flights to and from Decatur. On most days it flies three round-trip flights to Chicago and three more to St. Louis, a total of 12 take-offs and landings at Decatur’s small, quiet terminal, which is run by the town’s park district.
A passenger purchasing a one-way ticket on Air Choice One’s flight between Decatur and Chicago pays just $44.00, plus another $10.00 in fees. But the federal government chips in another $90.00 for that ticket in the form of EAS subsidies. And the government pays that amount for every seat on the plane -- even the empty ones.
Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), whose congressional district includes Decatur, says it’s a worthy investment.
"It’s an opportunity to grow our local economy," he said. "It’s an opportunity to create jobs that politicians keep talking about."
Joe Attwood, the manager of the Decatur Airport, agrees, and says EAS' $222 million subsidy goes a long way nationwide.
"In the scheme of things, $200 million is not that much money for the good that it provides," Attwood says.
"Taxpayers were promised this program would go away," he says. "And it hasn’t, in more than 30 years."
In fact, EAS' annual federal subsidy has grown significantly, from $26 million nationwide fifteen years ago to the $222 million current price tag.
But passengers have increased as well. The number of people flying in and out of Decatur on Air Choice One’s Cessnas has gone from a total of 5,000 in 2009 to 15,000 in 2012, an increase of 200 percent in the past four years. Passengers say the Decatur airport is convenient, with no traffic and free parking to boot.
So with the flights’ increasing popularity, does Air Choice One still really need the $2.6 million federal subsidy?
"I’m sure they need it now," says Attwood. "But if they could have another couple of years of subsidized existence, I think they are well on their way to creating a bottom-line airline."
Ironically, as Decatur’s air service flourishes with the help of government funding, the town’s control tower is one of many air-traffic-control operations facing its final days. It’s due to shut down later this month – a victim of the latest round of government cuts due to sequestration.