ESSENTIAL AIR TURBULENCE

News that American Airlines' regional jet service will end service at Bangor International Airport in November follows a report showing the number of passengers using BIA has dropped in recent months and is further evidence that federal support for smaller facilities that divert customers from regional airports should be reconsidered.

In May, the number of passengers using BIA dropped more than 16 percent from the previous year. For the first five months of 2007, passenger traffic is down nearly 5 percent. Airport Director Rebecca Hupp said the lack of airline seats out of the city is one reason for the decline. This fall, there will be fewer seats when American Eagle removes its flights to Boston and LaGuardia in New York.

This shortage is compounded by Delta Airlines' decision to pull its 50-seat jets from Bangor in April, replacing them with 19-seat turboprop planes. The airline's BIA traffic dropped by one-third the next month, perpetuating a downward spiral as customers who don't want to fly on the small planes go elsewhere.

The availability of low-cost carriers in Portland is likely another factor.

A federal program, called Essential Air Service, isn't helping either. It was started by Congress in 1978, as part of the airline industry deregulation, to ensure that travelers in small cities had access to air travel. It provides subsidies to 115 small airports at a cost of about $110 million a year.

Last year, Presque Isle received $1.1 million in subsidy. The other three qualified Maine airports - Rockland, Bar Harbor and Augusta - each received only slightly less, $1.06 million.

According to an analysis last year by The New York Times, many of the airports covered by Essential Air Service average only a handful of passengers a day, costing taxpayers up to $677 in subsidies per one-way ticket. The airport in Pueblo, Colo., for example, averages just five passengers a day. Area residents have likely concluded that it makes more sense to drive 40 miles to Colorado Springs where they can connect to flights across the country rather than flying from Pueblo to Denver before connecting.

The airport in Presque Isle, however, attracts an average of 53 passengers a day, at a subsidy of $34 per one-way ticket, according to the Times. Travelers have reasonably concluded that flying from Presque Isle is more efficient than driving to Bangor, a distance of 163 miles.

Also last year, a report by the New England Airport Coalition found that midsize airports, such as Bangor's, play an important role in connecting local residents to the national flight network while easing congestion at Boston's Logan Airport. Subsidizing airports in Augusta and Rutland, Vt., so passengers can fly to Boston while bypassing Bangor and Burlington, prevents these airports from being able to add flights, perhaps to new destinations, giving passengers greater access to the national airline system.

Small airports, such as in Bar Harbor and Rockland, are important for cargo and general aviation, but the government shouldn't be paying them to take passengers away from regional hubs and sending them to overcrowded airports like Logan.


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