Investigation finds taxpayers fund nearly empty flights - KCTV5 News

Investigation finds taxpayers fund nearly empty flights

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A flight between Kansas City, MO, and Great Bend, KS, carried just 523 people during a 12-month period ending in November. It cost the government more than $2,700 dollars per passenger. A flight between Kansas City, MO, and Great Bend, KS, carried just 523 people during a 12-month period ending in November. It cost the government more than $2,700 dollars per passenger.
(CBS News) -

Tax dollars are helping pay for more than 100 commercial airline flights a day to some of the nation's smallest communities.

It's part of the Essential Air Service program, but a CBS News investigation found that many of those flights have few passengers and has critics asking what, if anything, is actually essential.

Row after row of seats on a 50 seat commercial flight are empty. It leaves Denver twice daily for two remote North Dakota towns.

On the day CBS News landed in Devil's Lake, there were only four other passengers.

One can imagine there's not a huge rush to get to North Dakota in the middle of the winter, but the flight goes whether it's full or empty because of a government subsidy.

The Department of Transportation shells out more than $6 million a year to fund the route. It's one of 113 paid for by the federal government's Essential Air Service program.

It was created in 1978 after the airlines were deregulated. The idea was to make sure carriers continued serving rural communities. It was supposed to be temporary, but instead it's grown from $50 million in 2000 to 261 million this year.

And government data shows, on average, 44 routes flew at least two-thirds empty last year. Among them is the flight to Devil's Lake.

Mark Zimmer recently flew on that flight. He says is saves him maybe two hours each way.

"Parking is a lot easier here," he said.

Mayor Dick Johnson estimates the airline service helps drive $10 million a year to the local economy.

"It helps drive that economic engine that keeps us viable. Without that, we're just going to die off and fade away," he said.

Congressman Tom McClintock of California has been trying to ground the essential air service program since 2011.

"When we're having to make cuts in essential programs to keep increasing money in, this program is simply obscene," he said.

A flight between Kansas City, MO, and Great Bend, KS, carried just 533 people during a 12-month period ending in November. The route can cost the government up $1.4 million annually.

A small portion of the program funds flights inside Alaska as well.

Congress has increased the requirements to participate in the Essential Air Service program and capped the number of routes, but all efforts to end the program have failed to gain traction on Capitol Hill.

© 2015 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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