A Better, More Detailed Proposal Needed Before Airport Receives Essential Air Subsidy

The federal Transportation Department has one major concern about the necessity and viability of the Chautauqua County Airport at Jamestown.

Is it necessary to spend federal tax dollars to keep an airport open when travelers can travel 45 minutes south to Erie or 75 minutes north to Buffalo to use those airports? There is no easy answer to that question. Unfortunately for local officials working to reopen the Jamestown airport, that’s the question they need to answer before Chautauqua County receives one more dollar from the federal Essential Air Service program.

It’s easy to blame past ridership woes on poor carriers or winters with bad weather. Of course, they poor carriers and weather are one reason for lagging passenger counts — we’ve heard all of the complaints about unreliability of past carriers — but we also know poor carriers weren’t THE reason passengers chose to bypass the local airport too. No one wants to admit that Jamestown’s distance from Erie and Buffalo simply isn’t the deterrent to using the Buffalo Niagara International Airport or the Erie International Airport that it once was.

For the number of times we hear about largesse, waste and fraud in federal programs, it’s good the Transportation Department is holding county officials’ feet to the fire when it comes to increasing ridership at the Jamestown airport. For too long, the subsidy per rider at the local airport was more than twice the amount required by the federal government. For too long, ridership has been between half and three quarters the size required to remain eligible for federal Essential Air Service subsidies. Jamestown was one of five Essential Air Service airports that had a subsidy for the 2017 fiscal year and didn’t meet federal requirements for ridership and subsidy per rider. And, the airport’s struggles came with a dizzying number of different providers and flight destination hubs. Nothing worked.

Federal officials have done the right thing by saying no to restoring Essential Air Service to the Jamestown Airport. Their answer shouldn’t change until airline and county officials can show federal officials how they will sway air travelers to use the Jamestown airport instead of the Buffalo or Erie options. And, they’ll have to do better than tout the Jamestown airport’s free parking.