BERKELEY (CBS / AP) — On some days, pilots fire up a twin-engine Beechcraft 1900 at the Ely, Nevada, airport and depart for Las Vegas without a single passenger on board. And the federal government pays them to do it.
Federal statistics reviewed by The Associated Press showed that in 2010, just 227 passengers flew out of Ely while the airline got $1.8 million in subsidies. The travelers paid $70 to $90 for a one-way ticket. The cost to taxpayers for each ticket: $4,107.
Ely is one of 153 rural communities where airlines get subsidies through the $200 million Essential Air Service program, and one of 13 that critics claim should be eliminated from it. Some call the spending a boondoggle, but others see it as a critical financial lifeline in rural areas.
Severin Borenstein, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who helped design the EAS program, said Congress originally intended for the program to end after 10 years. He said the subsidies are a “big problem” in place like Ely, which averages one or two passengers per flight.
“I can see the argument for making some of them permanent, but the standards should be higher,” Borenstein said.
(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All rights reserved.)