Essential Air Service | Big City, Small Town

Essential Air Service | Big City, Small Town

Contour, an EAS carrier, departs Phoenix/Sky Harbor. Photo credit @AviationFreak

What is EAS?
Simply put, EAS (Essential Air Service), is a critical part in connecting small cities and towns with larger cities and hub airports in America. Airlines compete for contracts with the United States Department of Transportation and the best contract is given cash to subsidize the cost of serving the small community. Currently, 159 cities across the US are served by EAS contracts, from Alamosa, California to Wolf Point, Montana. It is quite a competitive system, with airlines vying for the coveted spot. Some carriers, like Boutique Air and Contour (pictured above) fly almost solely EAS contract routes, while some like Sun Country have just one or two.

A major part of business for lots of regional subsidiaries of large airlines are these EAS routes. For example, Endeavor Air operates Minneapolis - International Falls under the Delta branding, while Mesa connects Telluride with Denver for United. This enables customers from these small communities to seamlessly transfer to destinations across the globe.

A Bit of History

The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 gave airlines almost total freedom to determine which domestic markets to serve and what airfares to charge. This raised the concern that communities with relatively low passenger levels would lose service as carriers shifted their operations to serve
larger and often more profitable markets. To address this concern, Congress established the Essential Air Service program to ensure that small communities that were served by certificated air carriers before deregulation would continue to receive scheduled passenger service, with subsidies if necessary.

The EAS program is administered by the Office of the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, which enforces the eligibility requirements and determines the level of service required at eligible communities. By the end of 2022, 174 communities in the United States received subsidized service under EAS.

It is estimated that 746 towns could be eligible for the program, but it’s ultimately up to the carriers where they want to fly. EAS is especially critical for small communities in rural parts of the country, like remote Alaska and Hawai’i, who likely would have no other way to get elsewhere but air travel.

Who’s Eligable?

Counties in the Contiguous US that have eligible communities
The Department of Transportation and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2000, prohibits the Department from subsidizing EAS to communities located within the 48 contiguous States receiving per passenger subsidy amounts exceeding $200, unless the communities are located more than 210 miles from the nearest large- or medium-hub airport. On October 9, 2014, the Department issued a Notice of Enforcement Policy announcing how the Department intended to enforce compliance with the requirements of the $200 cap. The Final Notice of Enforcement Policy on the $200 cap was issued on October 9, 2014. As stated in that Notice of Enforcement Policy, all communities receiving subsidized EAS had until September 30, 2015, based on data from October 1, 2014, through September 30, 2015, to ensure compliance with the $200 subsidy cap or possibly face termination of subsidy eligibility.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 amended 49 U.S.C. § 41731(a)(1)(B) to change the definition of “eligible place” for the purpose of receiving EAS. The amendment states that to be eligible, a community must maintain an average of 10 enplanements or more per service day, as determined by the Secretary, during the most recent fiscal year beginning after September 30, 2012. The legislation exempts locations in Alaska and Hawaii and communities that are more than 175 driving miles from the nearest large- or medium-hub airport.

The Secretary also has the authority to waive the 10-enplanement standard, on an annual basis, if the community can demonstrate that the reason the location averages fewer than 10 enplanements per day is due to a temporary decline in enplanements. 49 U.S.C. § 41731(e).

Among other things, 49 U.S.C. § 41731 states that to be eligible, a community must have had an average subsidy per passenger of less than $1,000 during the most recent fiscal year, as determined by the Secretary of Transportation or face termination of subsidy eligibility, regardless of distance to a hub airport - US Department of Transportation.

TL;DR: It has to do with distance from an airport, operational cost, and the passenger numbers.

Cost to the Government


Keeping the EAS service running costs a pretty penny, and, as evidenced by the chart above, the price is only climbing. The government must keep their contractual agreement with the airline for the specified time, no matter what. On the flip side, the airline must fly the route at the interval decided on by the government until that contract is up, no matter what. Even if there’s one passenger on board an entire E170, they’ve still got to fly it. Sometimes, each empty seat costs the government as much as $801US (on a Horizon Air E175 EAS service into Anchorage). That’s thousands of dollars per flight that doesn’t generate any sort of profit or have a real benefit for anyone.

Yearly, the government spends in excess of $300 million on their EAS contracts, a significant portion of the DOT’s aviation budget.

There is a growing push to re evaluate EAS contracts and the cities involved. Is it really that far to drive to an airport?

Whatever the case, the Essential Air Service is critical for the smooth functioning of small communities needing air connections to larger cities and towns, for a whole swath of reasons.

Sources & Further Reading

When I’m over at Crescent City KCEC, provided the timing is right, I get to see a Dornier 328 JET because of the EAS. Used to be a Contour ERJ until mid-late March

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Very cool. Fun to see the variety of aircraft used on these EAS routes.

Flying MSP-EAU with 9 pax on a B738 was by far one of the coolest flights I’ve ever taken. EAS routes are unique and it’s very interesting how each is so different from the other. I mean we see some on PC12’s and then all the way up to a 738.

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I love flying EAS Routes in IF its just a shame we dont have the right aircrafts and Liveries!!

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When I lived in Mariemont, OH, there was a charter out of Lunken Airport (LUK/KLUK) called “Ultimate AirCharters” that flew to Chicago, New York and Lunken. (At the time) It operated Dornier 328 Jets.
Never flew on it but saw it a lot.

Also Southern Air Express outta Dulles👌

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Cape air offers a few EAS Routes inside Montana from Billings ,used to see them all the time, as well as 2 SkyWest routes!!

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I’ve got a good topic for you cover. Maybe research on Emirates and on how it grew to be one of the biggest and busiest airlines in the world today. The airline is quite young compared to many others so I think it’ll be interesting to see into what made it boom. Nice topic though.

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Very well written, interesting opinion piece out of Pierre, South Dakota on the town’s struggles with EAS service (or lack thereof).