Questions Raised About Federal Air-Travel Subsidies

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If you've flown commercial lately, you know that spam-in-a-can feeling, but some travelers are finding themselves with room to stretch out aboard aircraft with vacancy rates of up to 89 percent -- thanks to government subsidies that keep the routes profitable for regional airlines serving low-density areas. Lawmakers in Washington recently allocated $110 million to the Transportation Department to fund the program in 2008. The subsidies have been expanding in recent years, USA Today reported this week. The newspaper's analysis of where the money goes shows that much of it supports local trips to airport hubs that could easily be replaced with road trips of less than two hours. Aircraft with up to 24 seats often fly with just a few passengers, and depend on the subsidies to remain profitable. The USA Today story is comprehensive and detailed, but one thing it doesn't mention -- why not replace those big, empty turboprops with smaller, more efficient GA aircraft? DOT administrators would like to see the program reduced, according to USA Today, but lawmakers continue to raise funding for it in response to industry lobbying. "Clearly, what we're doing now is not working because the list of cities getting the (subsidized) service is growing," Andrew Steinberg, the DOT's assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs, told USA Today. "The goal here should be to get sustainable solutions where the marketplace provides service. Unless we change our approach, the cost will go up."