It’s called the Essential Air Service, and supporters call it an economic lifeline for small, mostly rural communities. Critics call it a $200 million-a-year federal boondoggle. Like so many issues involved in the debate over cutting federal spending, they are both right — up to a point.

The Essential Air Service subsidizes air service to about 150 communities in more than 30 states, including four in Maine. The program started in 1978 in the wake of airline deregulation to ensure that rural communities would not lose their air service. The subsidies were supposed to end after a decade.

Of course, that didn’t happen.

Instead, the program has grown like kudzu, with costs increasing more than 300 percent over the past decade. The flights carried more than 1.1 million passengers in 2009.

But it isn’t the flights with passengers that it getting all the attention. It’s the subsidized flights with no one on them.

The Associated Press reports that pilots with Great Lakes Airlines often fly empty aircraft between Ely, Nev., and Las Vegas without a single passenger on board. But they still get their subsidy, which, of course, is why they do it. Empty flights also occur in other communities.

Like so many federal programs, the Essential Air Service does a lot of good, and many of the subsidized routes can probably be justified by the economic benefits they spur.

Congress, however, needs to develop measurable criteria for the subsidies, including clear economic benefits and a cap on per-passenger costs to taxpayers.

— Montgomery Advertiser, Aug. 16

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