14 News Special Report: Funding Flights - 14 News, WFIE, Evansville, Henderson, Owensboro

14 News Special Report: Funding Flights

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OWENSBORO, KY (WFIE) -

There's a $239 million federal program that you probably know nothing about.
 
People in one Tri-State community say it works and they need it. 

Because of that federal program, Owensboro travelers can fly to St. Louis for $100 round trip. 

But, is this taxpayer money well spent or just a plane waste?
 
Seven days a week, you can get a cheap flight from Owensboro to St. Louis.

Traveler Wayne Hughes has taken that flight several times. 

"It's very convenient to be able to fly from here to St. Louis and fly, I guess, anywhere in the world," Hughes said.

14 News decided to try the trip out, not for its convenience, but for its value. 

With more an a million and a half dollars of your money going to the Owensboro service this year, we compared the flight to the drive. 

We set a stopwatch when leaving the 14 News bureau in Owensboro.

The time running while we drove to the airport, unloaded, checked-in, and sat out the 30 minute required wait time. The clock still running while we boarded, took-off, and while we were in the air.

While one 14 News team was flying the friendly skies, 14 News photographer Kirk Duncan left from the same starting point and made the drive to St. Louis.

The 14 News members met up in the big city. The plane got there first in just over two hours. Our photographer's time, 3 hours and 49 minutes. We repeated this on our return with about the same results.

The flight does save time. But, what about its cost? 

We spent $100 on the roundtrip ticket, the drive ran us about $60 in gas. 

"We've been extremely pleased with the service Cape Air has provided to the citizens of this region," said Bob Whitmer, Owensboro Airport Manager.

Whitmer says the flights offered by Cape Air allow Owensboro to connect to the world.

"That's been one of the drawbacks for small communities for years, their inability to connect nationwide," Whitmer said.

In exchange for offering the low-cost flights, Cape Air receives payments through the government program called Essential Air Service.

EAS runs on discretionary funding approved by congress and fees charged to foreign airlines.

The program was started after deregulation in the 70s when airlines became allowed to pick and choose where they operate, many turning their backs on small airports.

"More importantly and the number one reason the Essential Air Service was put in place was for economic reasons. A community like this needs to be able to reach out. When people are coming in to consider Owensboro as an industrial site, they want to be able to fly here. They don't want to take a Greyhound bus," Whitmer said.

Essential Air Service is currently in 163 communities serving around two million Americans a year.

Department of Transportation officials estimate the subsidy-per-passenger traveling from Owensboro to St. Louis to be around $241. 

More than 3,000 passengers, like Wayne Hughes, have taken the flight within the first six months of this year.

"It's awfully convenient to just park here and get on the plane and go up there opposed to driving three hours."

Over the years, Essential Air Service has been under scrutiny and has undergone reform. 

Cape Air's Owensboro service is under contract until 2015.

Copyright 2012 WFIE. All rights reserved.

 

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