Commentary: Flying high on taxpayers' backs

Attention, summer travelers. Looking for a cheap ticket for a family outing to D.C?

Fly Air Hal.

Beginning June 1, you can fly direct from Somerset to Dulles International Airport for less than $200.

What a bargain — except for taxpayers, who could get stuck paying $2,000 a flight.

All over the country, small cities such as Somerset pin economic development dreams on commercial air service.

Like Somerset, they use federal grants to build shiny new terminals but depend on federal subsidies, not passenger demand, to support commercial service. Weaned from the subsidies, the air service usually goes away.

Dating back to deregulation of the airlines in 1978, federal programs to preserve air service in smaller markets have swelled greatly in the last decade. You will be shocked to learn that some decisions about where money goes appear to be tied to who has clout in Congress.

Is this the most efficient use of federal dollars, the best way to improve transportation or spur economic development in rural areas? Probably not.

But it's popular in Washington. Congress has rejected proposals to limit air-service subsidies to areas that are truly remote. And President Barack Obama made good on a campaign promise by putting even more money into small-town air service and airports in his budget and stimulus package.

USA Today found that the typical subsidized flight (outside Alaska) was 37 percent full in 2006 while the overall aviation system ran at 79 percent capacity. (If you've been on a flight in which one of every five seats was empty, you've probably been flying the subsidized routes.) The Department of Transportation paid for almost 2.4 million empty seats in 2006, according to the analysis.

Like Somerset (77 miles from Lexington), many of the places benefitting from air service subsidies are within easy driving distance of a larger airport.

To read the complete editorial, visit The Lexington Herald-Leader.