How the U.S. government gave an airline a $1,510 subsidy per passenger for an entire year

SeaPort Airlines pulled out of Great Bend, Kansas. And no airline is taking its place. Photo: SeaPort.

SeaPort Airlines pulled out of Great Bend, Kansas. And no airline is taking its place. Photo: SeaPort.

Have you flown into Great Bend, Kansas? If you have, you should thank the federal government for subsidizing your ticket. But, unfortunately, the good times just ended.

First some background. The U.S. government props up routes from the smallest U.S. cities through its Essential Air Service Program.  The program has many detractors, but it has stuck around for more than 30 years because, without government assistance, many smaller U.S. cities would not have commercial service. No airline could make money flying to Chadron, Nebraska or Salina, Kansas off just ticket sales. 

The government is generous, but the U.S. Department of Transportation has its limits. It is now pulling air service from Great Bend, a city of population 16,000 in Central Kansas.

Here's why. 

You are reading that correctly. In Fiscal Year 2015, the U.S. government spent $1,510 per passenger to ensure the people of Great Bend could fly to Kansas City 12 times per week on a nine-seat single-engine Cessna 208 operated by SeaPort Airlines.

SeaPort's contract did not expire until July 31, 2016, and the government was planning to keep paying the subsidy until then. But on Jan. 15, just before it filed for bankruptcy, SeaPort gave up. It decided it didn't want to fly to Kansas City, even with all that free cash.

Normally, the government would go out and find a new airline. But the DOT is also giving up. It says it is not allowed to offer a subsidy greater than $1,000 per passenger. 

Had the flights only needed a $999 per passenger subsidy, the Department of Transportation would have offered to help another airline fly into Great Bend. But given how poor service performed, this is the end. 

This is probably a good idea. Below, you can see how many people used the service. 

What do you think of the Essential Air Service program? Do you you think it's worthwhile?