Critics, such as the U.S. Department of Transportation, said the subsidy -- which can underwrite up to 93 percent of a flight's cost -- is essentially luxury travel for people within driving distance of a larger airport, USA Today reported Monday. The subsidies expanded in recent years, thanks, in part, to support from the U.S. Congress, airlines and airports.
U.S. lawmakers, rejecting proposed Transportation Department cuts, allocated $110 million for the Essential Air Service program for 2008. Congress also blocked the department from requiring some communities to pick up a portion of the cost in an effort to prompt local officials to promote flights and draw more passengers.
"This is a compact of rural America with urban America," Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told USA Today. He wrote the law enacting the program in 1978 to bar airlines from fleeing small communities when airline deregulation began.
Department of Transportatoion administrators, saying the program is becoming harder to justify, is trying end subsidized flights to about 65 communities that are within 230 miles of larger airports.