Tax dollars being spent to keep flights affordable from Muscle S - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

Tax dollars being spent to keep flights affordable from Muscle Shoals to Nashville

SeaPort Airlines offers 24 flights a week from Muscle Shoals to Nashville. (Source: WAFF) SeaPort Airlines offers 24 flights a week from Muscle Shoals to Nashville. (Source: WAFF)
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    Thursday, January 29 2015 10:31 PM EST2015-01-30 03:31:32 GMT
    Thursday, January 29 2015 10:31 PM EST2015-01-30 03:31:34 GMT
    Fly The ShoalsEAS OverviewEAS backgroundMore >>
    Fly The ShoalsEAS OverviewEAS backgroundMore >>
MUSCLE SHOALS, AL (WAFF) - About $1.7 million of federal money is being spent each year to keep flights out of Muscle Shoals affordable for travelers to Nashville.

We're taking an in depth look at why tax dollars are being used to pay for so-called essential air service – a service all air travelers unknowingly pay for but benefits next to no one. The subsidy going to SeaPort Airlines to have 24 flights a week to Nashville costs almost $200 per person per flight.

These are flights that those subsidies help pay for, that in the past have been so underutilized that the government had to step in to make sure they keep flying, that cost in tax dollars more than double what the passenger pays, and that fall under the umbrella of Essential Air Service, or EAS for short.

Barry Griffith, Airport Director, weighed in on the issue.

"The EAS was basically developed after the airline deregulation act of 1978 at that time the legacy carries, or the major carriers like United, American, and Delta decided it was no longer profitable to serve small markets like ours," Griffith said.

It's a program the Shoals area has been a part of since its beginning.

"It allows our community to direct access to the national transportation system and it also provides economic incentive and development, in that businesses and developers who may consider your area for development will look and see if you have access to commercial air service transportation," said Griffith.

When Delta Airlines announced their departure from Muscle Shoals in 2010, airport officials were forced to find an alternate affordable passenger service to continue flights to larger markets.

"When we had Delta, we had some of our highest numbers in 2010," said Griffith. "When were serving Memphis and Atlanta, we were approaching nearly 20,000 passengers a year."

Griffith said soon after Silver Airways took over, customers began having issues with flight delays and reliability.

Griffith wasn't alone. In fact, Muscle Shoals Mayor David Bradford first had experience with the lack of dependability.

"They weren't being on time," Bradford said. "In fact, my wife had five flights coming back and forth from Atlanta and three of the five flights were canceled. The dependability and reliability of the past carrier... just that commitment wasn't there from them."

Unable to fill flights, the airport fought hard to stay enrolled in the EAS.

With markets like Huntsville, Nashville, Birmingham, and Memphis all within driving distance, many question the need for the service.

"Back when the program was developed, a lot of those communities were not as close and you didn't have the roadway systems that you have now," said Griffith. "However, another key factor is Huntsville has some of the highest fares in the nation."

The Department of Transportation granted the airport a one year extension to boost numbers.

With the extension came a new carrier - a carrier airport officials say is not only affordable but competitive to those willing to drive.

Robert McKinney, SeaPort President is excited about the airline's service to the Muscle Shoals community.

"We're thrilled to be able to have this day to open up to show you what we can do that we will be there long that takes care of this community," McKinney said.

SeaPort Airlines is offering 24 flights a week from Muscle Shoals to Nashville costing ticket buyers anywhere from $39 to $99 bucks each way, and made possible at those prices by a federal funds infusion of an estimated $1.7 million per year.

Lets break down the numbers:

According to gasbuddy.com, driving a Ford Escape would cost about $20 round trip and an estimated two and a half hours to drive nearly 130 miles to catch a flight in Nashville.

You would then pay anywhere from $9 to $24 a day for parking.

If you flew from Muscle Shoals, it would cost an estimated $100 bucks round trip, and parking would be free.

The total estimated travel time would be an hour and a half, which would include arriving 45 minutes to an hour before the flight and a 45-minute in-air flight.

"The comfort factor, the ease of access, and the convenience of flying out of here is so much greater," said Griffith.

But is that ease and convenience of 30 minutes saved worth the nearly $2 million people not on those flights are footing the bill for?

The airline and department of transportation say it is, and they argue the money being spent keeps small airports from going under.

"Gives us the ability to have some air service that will connect us where we can get connecting flights and that's why we're excited about Nashville because there are so many air carries out of their and pricing," Bradford said.

So where exactly does that $1.7 million come from?

According to the Department of Transportation, it is a combination of overflight fees, which are taken when international flights use US air traffic control and the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which is funded primarily by a tax on each airline ticket on every flight in the US.

In other words, the money comes from everyone who flies from anywhere to keep the flights here cheap enough to get passengers coming back.

In an area where government bailouts are generally frowned upon, questions remain if this is the best use of tax money.

Proponents of the program say the goal is to eventually be able to operate the affordable passenger service without the assistance of the EAS.

Airport officials say the community has to use the service or it will be lost.

And if it is lost?

As taxpayers, we are out $1.7 million.

And the airport?

"Our airport would revert back to what's considered a general aviation airport," said Griffith. "We would still serve the private operators, the small aircraft owners, and some of the business operators which by the way is a thriving business here at the airport."

For more information on the Northwest Alabama Regional Airport in the Shoals, you can click here.

Links to information about the EAS:

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