ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- Airplanes are sitting on tarmacs, and you can park in the front row these days at Lambert. Yet the federal government is forking over $10 billion in stimulus money to airports, even though some airports already receive government subsidies.

Is that really the best bang for our buck in the world of COVID-19?

Take a ride down Interstate 55 for two hours, and you find tiny Cape Girardeau Regional Airport, where on Tuesday, a United Express flight from Chicago was the only commercial flight to land in Cape. Yet the airport is getting nearly $17.5 million through the CARES act.

Flight 5087 landed with zero passengers, subsidized by taxpayers through the essential air service program. This empty flight cost taxpayers nearly $3,000 to operate each way. $6,000 for a round trip of none.

How is this possible? Katrina Amos is the airport manager.

"Even if those flights don’t have passengers they still fly correct?," News 4 asked.

"That is correct," Amos said.

"So if it’s private market it’s unlikely they would do that because of the federal subsidy they still fly?"

"That’s correct."

After landing empty, the plane took back off, again with no paying passengers. The only luggage on board belonged to an airline employee.

There is no question the coronavirus has severely impacted passenger travel. But even before the virus, this small airport boards only around 8,000 passengers per year. A small number for a $17.5 million stimulus.

Even Amos was caught off guard by the size of the check.

"We were shocked as anybody we were awarded this kind of money, excited about it," Amos said. "Do best we can to make it stretch. Definitely shocked by this money."

Even more head scratching, the airport's operating budget is less than a $1 million a year. They have no debt. Parking is free. There is but a small restaurant inside.

"Have you lost that much money?" News 4 asked.

"We have not. We have not lost that much money," Amos said.

Back home in St. Louis, concourses are also virtually empty. Passenger traffic is down 90%. Before the virus, Lambert Airport would handle three times as many passengers in one day as Cape does in an entire year. Yet Cape's stimulus check is nearly a third the size of Lambert's.

Lambert's operating budget is around $174 million a year. Their stimulus check for $60 million will keep operations going for roughly three years. In Cape, the money will last for 17 years.

Even though it is federal money, we asked Missouri Governor Mike Parson his opinion.

"If federal money is out there and they're going to use it for that, should utilize it how you divide it up. I’m not sure what the formula is," Parson said.

But to aviation consultant Mark Sixel, the system is flawed.

"It’s a placeholder error," Sixel said.

Sixel consults with both airlines and airports. He says Cape is far from alone. Small airports around the nation without debt wound up getting giant windfall checks by accident.

"The way it was calculated, if the airport had no debt and a little bit of cash in the bank they received an error message in the formulation," Sixel said.

To fix the error, Sixel says the FAA inserted a numerical placeholder which gave small airports like Cape an artificially high score, and that led to smaller airports getting disproportionately more money than larger airports.

Consultants like Sixel speculate the FAA needed to get money out fast. And fast decisions may have led to oversights. And those oversights may lead to turbulence down the road.

"It’s a problem," Sixel said. "A number of airports fighting to keep the money."

News 4 reached out to the FAA. They say grants will be capped at 4 years of an airport's operating expenses. They also say they will not be re-evaluating the process for small airports, and they will not be changing the amounts rewarded. We asked if the formula used to calculate the amounts was flawed, and they could not provide an answer.

Copyright 2020 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved

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