WASHINGTON, D.C. — When the COVID pandemic hit, it took a huge toll on our regional airlines by reducing the amount of flights taking off each day. The reduced air service is not a unique issue to our area but it’s something other small and regional airlines across the US are dealing with, too. We brought this issue to the Department of Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg. He shares with us exclusively what the DOT is doing to maintain reliable air service to small, regional airports.
“Anytime in a rural community that is trying to retain business and attract business to the area, air service is vital,” said Tom Freeman, the director of aviation with the Elmira-Corning Regional Airport.
Freeman said there’s a high demand for travelers visiting New York’s southern tier.
“Currently the flights are all full and they tend to be quite expensive and the demand is there,” said Freeman.
But the airport took a hit with the COVID pandemic.
“We went from five flights a day down to two with Delta which we currently have,” said Freeman. “United had left just at the start of COVID.”
Elmira isn’t the only regional airport facing this issue. American Airlines pulled out of Ithaca’s airport last year, which reduced the amount of air service there, too. Freeman said one way that could help their airport is a program called the Essential Air Service (EAS) program. It’s a federal program that guarantees small communities will maintain a minimal level of air service by subsidizing round trips each day. Right now, only some New York state airports qualify for the EAS program because they’re located far away from the nearest large or medium hub airport. Currently, the Elmira-Corning airport does not qualify for this program.
“One of my fears is that the airlines you know kind of like the idea of having make people drive two hours to Rochester or Syracuse because then they think they can capture the passengers there and we certainly don’t want that to become a habit for people to have to do that,” said Freeman.
So how can federal agencies help airports like Elmira- Corning? We asked the Department of Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg.
“Well, having been a mayor of a smaller city in the industrial Midwest, I know firsthand how important these smaller airports can be,” said Buttigieg. “It’s one of the reasons why we’re funding improvements at airports of all sizes, not just the JFK and the LAX airports of the world, but smaller airports like the ones you see in the region where I come from.”
Secretary Buttigieg said he’s concerned any time he sees an airline is withdrawing their service to small, regional airports.
“We’re making clear to airlines that we’re looking for them to provide more, not less, especially to these smaller communities,” said Buttigieg. “Raising the bar on customer service so that you don’t see the kind of cherry picking that leaves some customers or passengers behind, and not just left with those low cost carriers.”
Freeman hopes policy makers can open up the EAS program to markets like Elmira’s .
“Any encouragement the airlines can see to keep the regional service available and viable would certainly help,” said Freeman.
Freeman said they are constantly working with airline carriers to try to bring in more service to the airport.