HAGERSTOWN — It’s dim inside the terminal building of the airport. Ticket counters are empty and a coffee bar looks abandoned. The only person there to serve customers is a young woman running a rental car counter who says she no longer has much to do.
In October, the federal government pulled a $2.3 million subsidy that had supported daily flights that connected the small airport a half-mile from the Pennsylvania border to Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
“The airport’s unique to this area,” Jeff Cline, president of the Washington County Board of Commissioners, said as he stood in the quiet terminal. “We want to do everything to keep every amenity here and go forward, not backward.”
That includes suing the U.S. Transportation Department, alleging that federal officials arbitrarily yanked the funding at a time when air traffic in Hagerstown was showing promise.
Federal officials counter that Hagerstown consistently failed to meet the passenger numbers it needs to stay in the subsidy program — called Essential Air Service — and that Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International airports are close enough to serve the area.
The dispute mirrors a broader debate over the subsidies. They’re designed to connect rural parts of the nation to the passenger air network, but their cost has ballooned in recent years, despite repeated attempts by Congress to set new rules in hopes of reining in spending. The Trump administration initially proposed steep cuts to the program’s funding, a long-standing target of conservative activists, and is continuing to pursue more modest reforms to get costs down.
The Transportation Department picks among bidders to run the flights but isn’t required to choose the cheapest option or the shortest route. Tickets can be subsidized to the tune of several hundred dollars, and one airline involved in the program at other airports unabashedly advertises luxury service, inviting customers to “Fly private for the cost of commercial.”
Travelers from Macon, Georgia, are connected with Baltimore at an annual cost of $4.7 million, rather than the much closer hubs at Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina.
But supporters say the subsidized flights provide rural communities with a vital economic connection that is appealing to business and leisure travelers alike.
Stan Little, chief executive of Southern Airways Express, the airline that operated from Hagerstown, said that without the subsidies, “you are cutting off much of rural America.”
And while even supporters of the program recognize it has its flaws, Little said the government could find ways to encourage operators to be more frugal.
“The purpose of trying to trim cities from the program is to save money — but so much money is being spent outside of what the goals of the program are supposed to be,” he said.
As a passenger, the appeal of starting a journey at a small airport is plain. In Hagerstown, officials tout free long-term parking and security that can be traversed in minutes. Tickets to ride on a nine-seat Southern Airways turboprop could be had for as little as $20.
The airport still has healthy jet routes to Florida and South Carolina, departing a few times a week to serve tourists and spurring an expansion of the terminal building. But Garrison Plessinger, the airport’s director, said daily flights presented an important opportunity to grow.
Even if the lawsuit, pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, is successful and the government is ordered to restore the subsidy, Plessinger said the service will have to restart “back from square one.”
“That’s the hard part,” Plessinger said. “We’re going to have to gain the trust of customers again.”
The Essential Air Service was created in 1978 when the airline industry was deregulated so that rural areas wouldn’t lose flights. About 170 communities are involved in the program at a cost of almost $300 million, an amount that has increased sevenfold since 1996.
To benefit, they’re supposed to see an average of 10 passengers a day depart and receive subsidies amounting to no more than $200 per passenger. But communities that miss those targets can get waivers. One city, Jamestown, New York, was kicked out last year, and two more this year, Franklin, Pennsylvania, and Hagerstown.
The Congressional Research Service said in a recent report that waivers “almost always are granted,” so supposed new limits in recent years “have not proven effective in controlling program costs.”
In Hagerstown Regional Airport’s case, those $20 fares were padded by $355 in subsidy funds in 2018 and attracted about 5,000 passengers. A similar number of passengers opted to fly from Victoria, Texas, but a more expensive operation there meant each passenger was subsidized to the tune of $531.
The Transportation Department declined to comment because of the litigation.
In its first budget, the Trump administration proposed eliminating much of the program’s funding, saying the remaining money would be used “on those remote communities in most need of support.” The administration’s current proposal includes eliminating waivers from the subsidy cap as part of a plan to get costs down.
Looking at Hagerstown’s numbers this year, the Transportation Department decided that after granting seven waivers in five years, it was time to boot it from the program.
“Hagerstown has not provided any rationale or evidence to support the conclusion that the past four years of noncompliance was an anomaly,” a Transportation Department official said in denying the latest waiver.
While Congress as a whole has sought to curtail the program, Maryland’s two U.S. senators and the area’s congressman unsuccessfully joined a host of local officials and business leaders in asking the department to reconsider the waiver.
The federal lawmakers pointed out that the Federal Aviation Administration recently awarded Hagerstown a $1 million grant to support the terminal expansion.
“To invest in the airport to accommodate projected growth while simultaneously threatening that growth by denying the airport’s EAS waiver appears contradictory and shortsighted,” they wrote.
At the same time, officials did grant Victoria a pass. It’s that decision that Cline, a Republican, and the other county commissioners are now pinning their hopes on in court, arguing that it shows that the federal government was acting arbitrarily.
In legal filings, Washington County leaders said they faced irreparable harm from the loss of the subsidies and a $4.5 million hit to the region’s economy.
“The significant monetary harm will not be compensable,” the county officials wrote.
Federal officials counter that there were significant differences in Victoria’s circumstances, justifying the community’s waiver.
Standing outside the terminal, Plessinger pointed to where the building would be expanded next year: Vacationers have to wait to board their planes in the conference room in his office suite.
Plessinger said it’s especially galling to know that one part of the airport’s business is thriving while another has been eliminated.
“We feel like the rug is taken out from under us,” he said.