On a map, Page, Arizona appears to be quite remote. On the shores of Lake Powell, just across the border from Utah, it is surrounded by desert. Page is about 4.5 hours by car from the nearest major cities, Las Vegas or Phoenix.
Despite this, this town of about 7,500 people has two daily flights to Phoenix thanks to the Essential Air Service programme, a subsidy that allows small communities to stay connected to the national aviation network.
According to Michael Schneider, regional director of sales and marketing for Aramark, which operates tours on the Colorado River out of Page under the Wilderness River Adventures brand under contract with the National Park Service, those flights help keep Page’s tourist-dependent economy afloat.
“These Essential Air flights are extremely important to us,” Schneider said. “We need tourists to come to Page to keep the economy going. Our restaurants, hotels, and activity tourism businesses employ the majority of our workforce. That’s pretty much how the city operates.”
What exactly is essential air service?
The Essential Air Service (EAS) programme is a government grant that allows airlines to subsidise flights to small towns.
According to Daniel Friedenzohn, professor of aeronautical science and associate dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, EAS was created in response to airline deregulation legislation passed in 1978.
“Some markets might not be able to get air service without some sort of subsidy,” he said. “It has enabled some communities to have air service that would not have been possible without the Essential Air Service programme.”
How do Essential Air Service flights work?
It varies greatly. There are minimum requirements for plane sizes and frequencies, but operators have a lot of leeway in terms of the aircraft they use and the services they provide onboard.
“You don’t get all the benefits of flying on a regional jet or even a larger jetliner, but it’s usually reliable service, and the flight isn’t that long,” Friedenzohn said.
According to Schneider, flights on the Page-Phoenix route, flown by Contour Airlines, usually take less than an hour and are comparable to those operated by mainline airlines with larger planes.
“They have refreshment services, a bathroom, it’s pretty similar to a regular jet, just much smaller,” he explained.
How do passengers book flights on Essential Air Service?
This is also dependent on the operator, but most flights are bookable in the same way as any other airline.
“In today’s world, you book on the website if possible, and obviously, everybody uses the internet or an app these days,” Friedenzohn explained. “It may be unique for some people because they are unfamiliar with the specific airline.”
How do communities become eligible?
Communities in the continental United States that qualify for EAS must have received subsidies between September 30, 2010 and September 30, 2011, and must be at least 70 driving miles from the nearest major airport. They must also maintain a minimum of 10 passengers per subsidised flight per day on average each year, unless the nearest larger airport is more than 175 miles away. Except for communities more than 210 miles from larger airports, the subsidy is limited to $200 per passenger on average.
Hawaii and Alaska have different requirements, and the DOT stopped adding new communities to the lower 48 EAS list in 2012.
More technical information about qualifications can be found on the Department of Transportation’s website.
“It’s critical for people in the community to be able to connect to major flights,” said Schneider, who lives in Phoenix. “I can hop in a cab and be at the airport in 10 minutes and fly to a foreign country; they don’t have that luxury,” but EAS service makes it easier for people in small towns to make those connections.
What requirements must airlines meet in order to operate Essential Air Service flights?
Airlines bidding for EAS contracts must typically plan at least two daily flights to the subsidised community on 30- or 50-seat aircraft. Operators can also use smaller planes, such as those with nine or fewer seats, and operate at higher frequencies.
According to Friedenzohn of Embry-Riddle, the DOT sometimes relaxes these requirements on a case-by-case basis.
The DOT spent nearly $340 million on EAS grants in 2021.