Freedom is in the Air

Local communities like Plattsburgh and Saranac Lake rely on the government’s support of aviation for their economic livelihood, and now they’re fighting to keep it

Story and photos by Liz Davidson

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A welcoming site to the entrance of the Plattsburgh Airport.

Once reserved for the military and the outrageously affluent, air travel was at one point considered to be a rare privilege. Since that time, it has become a basic part of everyday life. The products people buy, the business deals people make, and the vacations people plan all connect to aviation.

In fact, many things in society do.  For this reason, the government has long supported aviation by issuing subsidies for air travel in regions that need but can’t support it. Thus in 1978, the Essential Air Service program was created under the Department of Transportation.  

Plattsburgh International Airport in Plattsburgh, N.Y. and Adirondack Regional Airport in Saranac Lake, N.Y., both have airlines that receive federal subsidies from this program, which mandates regular and frequent air service to qualifying small community airports regardless of their profitability.
This provision was enacted based on a fear that much of the country would become isolated from air travel, and therefore, from commerce. If the airline companies were left unregulated this would only allow service to high-traffic travel hubs.

The subsidies have received criticism from fiscal conservatives, and a current proposal in the Senate could effectively eliminate them all. This would result in defunding airline access for 150 small airports across the country. Opponents of the proposal, like N.Y. senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer, have argued that the economic benefits of airline access in small communities are so extensive that the subsidies must be protected and preserved.

“Access to air travel is critical for our economic recovery. Losing this funding would be devastating for many communities across the state,” says Senator Gillibrand in a February press release. “Businesses cannot grow if we do not provide communities in every corner of New York with adequate air service.”

“We would be hurting without those funds,” says Ross DuBarry, manager of Adirondack Regional Airport. “We wouldn’t have to shut down the place…but we’d be seeing a significant drop in enplanements (passengers).”

“We would be hurting without those funds.”

If passenger volume goes down, surrounding community businesses suffer, says Deputy Clinton County Administrator Rodney Brown. “It’s not just the airport that benefits (from air travel).”

A 2006 study by the National Aviation Manufacturers Association looked into the ways air travel affects society, and found there are direct, indirect, and induced benefits. Aviation supports aluminum manufacturers, factory assemblers, fuel suppliers, and maintenance staff directly, while they indirectly support the hotels, restaurants, resorts, and shops. Those places then support the folks who make napkins, price tags, clothing, and anything else those industries use or sell.

The study found that general aviation (GA) contributed $150 billion and about 1.3 million jobs nationwide in 2005, while adding that the “estimates of GA’s economic contributions do not, by any means, include all of GA’s significant net benefits to the U.S. economy.”

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The main terminal at Plattsburgh International Airport is dwarfed by the size of its massive runway once used for military purposes.

“The [Adirondack Regional] Airport fuels commerce. It creates about $13 million and 120 jobs per year for Harrietstown, and that’s only the direct income,” says Barry DeFuria, deputy supervisor of Harrietstown.

Plattsburgh International Airport created 373 jobs and made $15.7 million in income in 2009, with its total net benefits for the county reaching $38.7 million, according to Airport Manager Tom Long.

“It’s the economic engine for the community,” says Long.
Both of these airports have air carriers who do not receive any federal subsidies, but the bulk of their passengers use the EAS-funded airline. Adirondack Regional uses Cape Air, which flies round trip to and from Boston every day, with their annual federal subsidy from the DOT equaling $1.36 million. Plattsburgh International has Colgan Air, which also provides round-trip flights to Boston, with subsidies from the DOT equaling about $1.38 million.

These flights to Boston allow both airports to stay connected to the main national air network. Their other air carriers offer flights to certain vacation destinations but don’t provide direct access to major metropolitan cities. From Boston, travelers can access every major city in the country.

Brown says the North Country’s location makes it an especially useful airport position. “We’re out of the snow belt, we’re right on the Northway, and the Canadians…are always looking for cheap flights around here because of higher airline taxes in Canada.”

“It’s the economic engine for the community.”

Plattsburgh International Airport’s location is said to be a major factor in its transformation from an Air Force Base to a successful commercial airport. Skycontrol Magazine called it the “first private sector redevelopment success story among U.S. bases closed in the 1990s,” and attributed the airport’s success to its proximity to Interstate-87, the Amtrak railways, and Montreal.

“Canadians certainly take advantage of our EAS airline more than the locals do,” Brown says.

In 2009, Plattsburgh International saw a 68 percent increase in passengers, with 80 percent of those passengers coming from the Montreal area, according to CBC News.

This shift of passengers to the North Country has hurt Canadian business, says Anthony Pollard, president of the Hotel Association of Canada. “People are going out of the country to take advantage of less expensive air travel…it’s a loss of revenue to the city of Montreal.”

And if EAS funding is lost, Brown fears that Montreal’s economic problems will shift back to the North Country. “If Plattsburgh and Adirondack Regional lose their funding, Cape and Colgan Air will leave, and those Canadians will probably go back to using their own airports,” says Brown, “and that would be a huge blow to our economy.”

Adirondack Regional Airport, though smaller and less traveled, feels many of the same benefits from location that Plattsburgh International does, receiving many Canadian passengers as well as visitors to Lake Placid and the Adirondack High Peaks.

“If funds are cut, they [the government] will be doing a big disservice at a time of economic recovery.”

Their subsidized airline, Cape Air, has brought in significant amounts of traffic, DuBarry says. “Our numbers have gone up every year since they came in, and the flights have definitely benefited people who otherwise would have to drive for hours to get to an airport connecting to the national network.”

DuBarry says, “The bottom line is that our county relies on the airport, and the airport relies on those funds. If funds are cut, they (the government) will be doing a big disservice at a time of economic recovery.”

What has been your most interesting air travel experience?

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