How Is Subsidizing Mostly Empty Flights To Devils Lake A Good Deal For The Taxpayers?

On Sunday Grand Forks Herald reporter Kevin Bonham published an article about Essential Air Subsidies for flights to and from Devils Lake (he also wrote about Thief River Falls, but Minnesota isn’t my beat so I’ll leave them out).

Bonham’s article portrays the subsidies as a success in Devils Lake. “Commercial airline passengers—counting those both arriving and leaving—totaled 5,104 in Devils Lake in 2015,” he reports. “That’s nearly double the number in 2013, and a 76.7 percent increase over 2014.”

Today the Herald editorial board also praises the subsidies. “But lo and behold, the Devils Lake airport seems to have beaten the odds,” writes Tom Dennis for the paper after noting some of the negative attention subsidized flights to that city has received from the national media. “For the airport now is offering fares that are low enough to draw passengers from Grand Forks, a marked reversal from earlier traffic patterns.”

But here’s a problem with the Herald’s coverage of this issue: Not once do they do the math on the subsidies the Devils Lake flights receive. In fact, nowhere do Bonham or Dennis even mention the dollar figure for those subsidies.

They should have. Because it’s a not insignificant part of the story.

I looked up the current EAS agreement for flights to Devils Lake (PDF), and here are the details:

eassubsidies

It’s costing the federal taxpayers over $3.2 million per year to subsidies flights to and from Devils Lake, to serve just 5,104 passengers.

The agreement requires 1,121 flights per year (that’s 22 one-way flights over 52 weeks with a 98 percent expected completion rate), so we’re talking about an average of about 4.5 passengers per flight in 2015 on a 50-seat regional jet which cost the taxpayers $2,877 per flight (nearly $640 per passenger) or $5,754 per round trip.

I do not understand how you can leave those numbers out of a report about EAS subsidies in Devils Lake. Keep in mind, SkyWest must make these flights with the specified aircraft type to get their subsidies.

And only do those numbers illustrate what seems to be a colossal waste of resources and tax dollars, but there are serious questions about market fairness. As Dennis points out in the Herald editorial:

Of course, while Devils Lake residents delight in those numbers, Grand Forks airport officials almost certainly frown. After all, the Devils Lake-to-Denver flights are subsidized; that’s the Essential Air Service program’s whole point. And arguably, the subsidies give the Devils Lake airport an unfair advantage.

Gosh, do you think? The Bonham article also quotes the Devils Lake airport manager as saying they’re pulling travelers from the Minot airport as well.

Not only are we wasting money on subsidized flights to and from Devils Lake, but we’re hurting profitable air travel commerce in Grand Forks and Minot.

If we’re measuring success for the EAS program in Devils Lake by nothing other than growth in boardings then yes, the program is successful. Boardings have gone up.

But I’m not sure I’m willing to characterize spending $640 in federal tax dollars per passenger so they can buy $262 plane tickets from Devils Lake to Denver.

By the way, Devils Lake is one of two airports in North Dakota receiving EAS subsidies. Jamestown is the other. Here are the details for that airport’s subsidies (full document here):

jamestowneas

According to the Jamestown airport’s website, they 8,642 boardings in 2015. That’s a slightly better per-flight passenger average of 7.7, but still an abysmal number when we’re talking about 50-seat jets.

The per-passenger, per-flight subsidy is $362.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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