(KMOV.com) -- It happens three times a day at the Decatur, IL airport. Small nine-passenger planes load up and take-off for Lambert airport.
Decatur, Illinois is one of the 116 American towns served by what is known as the Essential Air Service program. Flights under the program are inexpensive. For example, you can purchase a one-way ticket from Decatur to St. Louis two hours before take-off for just $35.
“The federal government basically makes their fares cheaper,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a representative for the American Action Forum, a conservative non-profit based in Washington, D.C. “What you have is a program that is subsidizing empty aircrafts to take off and land,” said Holtz-Eakin.
From Decatur, the small planes fly to Lambert and Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. The annual subsidy for the routes is $2.6 million. Most of the flights observed had more than one passenger, but only a few were close to full.
Lawmakers with EAS cities in their districts generally support the program. GOP Rep. Rodney Davis says the program is an economic engine for Decatur and other Illinois towns like Marion and Quincy, which cost taxpayers more than $4 million a year to operate.
Davis says even if you don't fly the routes, which most people don't, it's still a benefit to Lambert Airport.
“You pull those flights out [and] it’s another gate that’s not being utilized,” said Davis.
There are actually two EAS gates at Lambert. Between "Air Choice One" and "Cape Air", these two head to nine different EAS communities from Lambert each day. They include Cape Giradeau, Ft. Leonard Wood, Kirksville, Southeast Iowa, and Jonesboro, Ar. That route to Jonesboro costs taxpayers close to $2 million a year.