Aerial view of small rural airport runways

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Rural Air Transport and the Essential Air Service Program


Rural areas suffer from poor access and accessibility to the national air transport system. This can create economic isolation, population loss and acceleration of demographic shifts.

Essential Air Service, a U.S. government program, is designed to encourage air carriers to provide service to rural and remote communities. However, there are a number of challenges associated with the EAS program, such as under-utilized connections, rising airline industry labor and maintenance costs, and the risk of lost economic activity to rural areas if EAS subsidies were discontinued.


Tony Grubesic, director of ASU’s Center for Spatial Reasoning and Policy Analytics, sought to deepen the understanding of the operation and spatial efficiencies of the EAS service. Data envelopment analysis and a variation on the maximal covering location problem served as the core analytics approaches for this evaluation.

Grubesic also used additional tools and methods, including a commercial GIS for geovisualization and network analysis for determining the shortest paths for a nationwide street network. Alternative subsidy arrangements (e.g., a 10 percent or 20 percent budget decrease) were explored to evaluate both spatial and operational efficiencies. Tradeoffs between operational and spatial efficiency were evaluated to determine a balanced strategy for subsidy allocations.


The analysis found that with 20 percent budget cuts to the EAS program, nearly 99 percent of the potential demand for EAS service could still be satisfied with 93 total airports. The government would also save $43.8 million in subsidy costs. The study indicated that the EAS program could be a more financially responsible federal investment without sacrificing the program’s goals and objectives.