Taxpayers Shell Out For Near-Empty Flights

attkisson, essential air services
Essential Air Service was set up during the Carter Presidency to prop up rural airports until they could make it on their own. It was supposed to be temporary, but as CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports, it's now bigger and costlier than ever-$127 million dollars this year alone.

Government watchdog Evan Sparks says airlines and airports are no closer to making it on their own. They're just hooked on the public dole.

"The Essential Air Service is neither essential, nor is it much of a service," Sparks says.

The government's Essential Air Service pays airlines millions to serve more than 100 small towns-many can barely scrounge a few passengers even after years of trying.

A million dollars a year keeps planes flying into Lewistown, Montana-often empty. The subsidy works out to $843 dollars a passenger.

How about the $2 million a year to fly a handful of people from Macon, Georgia to Atlanta-just 83 miles away?

Attkisson booked tickets from Washington Dulles Airport to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.

She didn't have to fight a crowd at the gate, there was no line to board, and with just four other passengers, there were plenty of empty seats.

Yet the government pays Colgan Air $1.3 million dollars a year to fly this route three times a day.

Most of the planes fly more empty than full, but the government still pays for it even when they're completely empty.

After Attkisson landed, her plane went on to Beckley West Virginia-with no passengers at all.

Essential Air Service does have its supporters-the lucky few passengers enjoy low fares and lots of elbow room.

But its biggest fans are in Congress. Representative John Peterson says the program, run by the Department of Transportation, is crucial to keeping rural America "connected."

"The Department of Transportation paid for 2.4 million empty seats in 2006. Is that a problem?" Attkisson asks.

"Well sure it's a problem," Rep. Peterson says. "But proper administration, hooking them up to an airport where there's someplace to go, some place to connect to, those have been the problems. Those have been administrative problems."

As it happens, it's thanks to Essential Air Service that Peterson can fly right into his tiny hometown airport in Oil City, Pennsylvania-population 11,000. And he's not the only member of Congress with subsidized flights going to their small towns.

Which may be partly why, when the Department of Transportation recently tried to cut back Essential Air Service, Congress just made it bigger: all those millions paying for flights that are often running on empty.