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And you may never have taken a flight to Vernal, Utah, or Rockland, Maine, but you've helped pay for air service to those towns and many more under a federal program that subsidizes commercial flights to small airports. Some communities consider the $175 million program an economic lifeline. Critics call it wasteful.

NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.

ADAM HOCHBERG: It's not often that you'll see your crowd this big at the airport in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Unidentified Man #1: Hey y'all, gather around right in here.

HOCHBERG: But last month, scores of people crowded into the tiny terminal to help Mayor Mike Bush celebrate something that other airports take for granted. For the first time in more than a year, Hot Springs � a city with fewer than 40,000 residents � is being served by a commercial airline.

Mayor MIKE BUSH (Hot Springs, Arkansas): We've got airline service, y'all�

(Soundbite of applause)

HOCHBERG: Now, if you're used to flying into bigger cities, the Hot Springs service may be a bit underwhelming. It's provided by a small carrier called Seaport, which offers three daily round trips to Memphis on a single-engine, nine-passenger propeller plane. But airport director George Downey says even that level of service is a big deal for Hot Springs community leaders.

Mr. GEORGE DOWNEY (Airport Director, Hot Springs): It's very important for economic development because it is something positive that they can answer to any company wanting to relocate. Usually that's the first or second question on any questionnaire: Do you have local air service?

HOCHBERG: Twice this decade, other airlines have started commercial flights to Hot Springs, only to discontinue them for a lack of passengers. So why is Seaport trying again? Partly because the company is getting a federal subsidy to do it. Hot Springs is among about a hundred small cities in what's known as the Essential Air Service program. That means airlines can receive hundreds or even thousands of dollars in federal subsidies for each passenger. Seaport CEO Kent Craford says his company is getting more than a million dollars a year to fly here.

Mr. KENT CRAFORD (CEO, Seaport): One thing about the Essential Air Service program is that the risk is mitigated by the subsidization of the air service.

HOCHBERG: But without the subsidy there's no way you're here, right?

Mr. CRAFORD: Without the subsidy we wouldn't have taken the gamble to initiate service, no.

HOCHBERG: The Essential Air Service program dates to the 1970s, when Congress deregulated the airlines and wanted to protect rural airports. But over the years, the subsidies have steadily grown and attracted their share of criticism. Many cities the program serves � including Hot Springs � are within about an hour's drive of bigger airports. And aviation consultant Michael Boyd said many of the flights are unnecessary.

Mr. MICHAEL BOYD (Aviation Consultant): If you're looking at a small community that is literally 150, 300 miles from the nearest airport, well, maybe you need to look at Essential Air Service. But when you're looking at something like Manistee, Michigan, where it's less than an hour to Traverse City, or Pueblo, Colorado, where it's 45 minutes to Colorado Springs, that's a waste of money.

HOCHBERG: Indeed, it's not unusual for subsidized flights to be mostly empty. Pueblo's million-dollar subsidy, for instance, funds fewer than 12 daily passengers. But efforts to reform the program have fallen flat in Congress, where Democrats and Republicans alike have guarded the money that flows to their airports. Ernest Istook is a former congressman who is now with the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Mr. ERNEST ISTOOK (Conservative Heritage Foundation): Many members of Congress realize their communities are taking advantage of a bad system. But they feel they have no political choice other than to try to perpetuate it.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HOCHBERG: As Hot Springs officials cut the ribbon to inaugurate their service, they side-stepped political questions about the subsidies. But local gas station owner Ike Iqbal says he supports them. He says he'll take advantage of the new flights rather than driving airports in Little Rock or Dallas.

Mr. IKE IQBAL (Gas Station Owner): We pay a tax, so that's my tax money. Yeah, and the government is helping, so they're going to help us and make a little money so our economy can survive.

HOCHBERG: So far, Seaport's Hot Springs service hasn't been hugely popular. In fact, there have been days since the start-up when the airline hasn't carried a single passenger. But the company projects it will eventually will sell about seven tickets per flight, and says the $160 round-trip fare plus the million dollars a year in government money will make the route profitable.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

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