Air Service in Paducah & the EAS Program

When Delta Airlines announced in 2009 that they were ending service to Memphis from Paducah, it potentially signaled the end of commercial air service in Paducah.The saving grace for Barkley came in the form of a Department of Transportation (DOT) program, called the Essential Air Service Program (EAS). This program, in place since 1978 was started in an effort to make sure small communities were still able to have commercial airline service.

Without getting lost in the particulars, through the program, the DOT subsidizes air service for a single airline between a small community and a medium or large size hub, up to 14 flights per week, allowing up to 5% profit, as opposed to a loss without subsidy. 

The requirements that a community/ airline has to meet to be eligible for the program include :
A) The community had air service in 1978, when the program was enacted.
B) The small community is more than 200 air miles or more from a medium or large hub.
B) The subsidy cost is less than $200/ ticket.

Obviously Paducah met all the requirements, so we were eligible and guaranteed at least 70 seats per day to/from a medium or large sized hub. 

For the program, the DOT publishes a request for bids from airlines wishing to provide subsidized service to a qualifying small community.   Interested airlines submit bids on the amount of subsidy they would require to provide the service, the hub they would serve, the type of aircraft they would use.  It is important to note that all of these options are up to the airline,  the community has no voice in which hub is served.  And in fact airlines aren’t required to submit a bid.

Once the deadline for proposals comes, each city is given a chance to review the proposals, and offer their comments and recommendations to the DOT  on the service they prefer, but the department, not the community makes  the final decision and awards the contract to an airline.

In our case,  SkyWest Airlines bid the 50-seat CRJ-200 service to Chicago, for United Express, and they were the only airline to bid service. They were awarded the contract and on Feb. 10, 2010 they began service, which continues today.   Our subsidy is the 8th lowest in the country, at $47/ticket.  Which means if it weren’t for EAS, your ticket would cost roughly $50 more each way, adding $100 to the cost of a round-trip ticket..

Over the last 7+ years they have still been the only airline to bid Paducah, and re-awarded each time, due in large part to the growth the service has seen.  The first contract they projected to carry 35,000 passengers each of the 2 years.  In their current contract, which expires Jan. 31, 2020, they projected to carry 42,500.  In 2017 we carried 41,895, passengers, a 3% increase over 2016.

One thing you should know, is that the airline is only paid based on the number of completed flights, so its not an automatic payment.  If a flight is canceled, the airline doesn’t see any money. So it is in SkyWest’s best interest to fly as many flights, as possibile, but they are subject to United Airlines schedulers. Which is why we say United and not SkyWest cancels flights when that occurs.

In our region 3 other airports have service through the EAS program.

Cape Girardeau, MO – Cape Air   9-seat Cessna Caravan service to St. Louis.

                   Marion, IL – Cape Air  9-seat Cessna Caravan  service to St. Louis.

         Owensboro, KY – Cape Air  9-seat Cessna Caravan service to St. Louis.

While we are constantly looking at ways to enhance the air service we have, the challenges of both EAS, and the available options make it challenging. Each year we have meetings with different airlines about serving Paducah and while nothing beyond putting us on an airline’s radar has happened beyond those conversations, it still doesn't stop us from trying.

We have even talked to SkyWest/United Express about what we would need to have to add a third flight to Chicago, or perhaps another city, like Houston, where they and United have hubs, which is an option but we have to reach a benchmark before they will consider it. In short we would need 10,000 more passengers/yr to get us to where that might be a possibility.   In other words if 1/4 of everyone that flew Barkley at least once in 2017 flew one additional time in 2018, we would more than have that number, so it is an attainable goal.

That said, there are also still options for other airlines to come in and offer non-daily or seasonal service,  or  daily service with fewer than 70 available seats, but those opportunities are also fewer and farther between, due to not many airlines being out there, and airlines aren't willing to take a risk that a new route won't be profitable for them. But rest assured we will keep looking.  Otherwise we hope this brief summary on EAS has helped you  understand why we  have the service we do, and the challenges and risks we face with it. And that if you want to help us grow, remember that when you fly, you fly from Barkley!