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How Improving Rural Airports Could Improve Air Travel For All


By Visitor7 (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Elko Regional Airport

Let's go on a vacation. Or a business trip.

We're about to fly somewhere.

Imagine the airport we're going to use.

You probably thought of McCarran or Reno-Tahoe, right?

Across Nevada and the country, a number of rural airports help make up some of the backbone of American air travel.

UNLV professor Dan Bubb says that, without those airports, the American West might not be what it is today.

He also thinks improving funding to those airports could help boost the economies of those rural areas, which helps the state overall.

"I think you'll find that if we're able to sufficiently fund these airports, we're going to see the economy improve in a lot of areas," Bubb said.

Rural airports around the country are mostly funded by the federal government, with state and local taxes making up a minor part of the funding.

In Nevada, that state funding comes from the aviation trust fund, but the funding isn't permanent.

"One of the problems is a lot of these small rural areas have difficulty matching those funds," he said. "If they can't match them, then those funds will go away." 

He said money that would be a drop in the bucket for a large airport like McCarran International Airport is vital to small airports, funding everything from runway repairs to security improvements.

Support comes from

Bubb said the Minden-Tahoe airport used the $200,000 in the state trust fund to leverage $52 million in economic growth. He wonders just how much more could be leveraged if the state boosted the fund to $500,000 or $1 million.

But it is not just the state that could help. Bubb said the federal government could help by boosting funds for the program known as the Essential Air Service. 

The service works with airlines to provide routes to small airports in rural areas they normally wouldn't fly to because they're not profitable. 

At one time, some of Nevada's rural airports were part of the Essential Air Service, but that has changed. Bubb believes restoring that service will have a huge impact.

"Obviously, when you remove Essential Air Service, it's going to have a significant impact on the economy," he said.

He said removing the service has a domino effect: airlines pull out of the airport; airport managers have to find new airlines; the airport sits idle; residents want to shut it down because they don't want their tax dollars going to an airport that isn't being used.

Another factor is how airlines have created the hub-and-spoke system of air travel. In the past, airlines flew from point A to point B. Now, they fly from point A to their hub airport in a major city, and then to point C. 

That system, Bubb explained, is why it is cheaper for someone to drive one to two hours to a large metro area to catch a flight than it is to take a flight out of a smaller airport.

"It's more profitable for the airlines if people fly through the hubs," he said.

In the future, even larger airports won't be able to handle the expected amount of air traffic.

Bubb said in the next 10 to 15 years, the U.S. is going to see a jump in passenger traffic from 750 million a year currently to 1.25 billion.

He said nobody -- from small regional airports to large metro hubs -- is ready for the increase in traffic.

But he believes with planning, airports across the country could be ready and actually benefit, including small rural airports around Nevada.

"I would hope that the airlines -- I would hope that the small airport managers, [and] regional directors would be able to come together to some sort of an agreement, where similar to the Essential Air Service, they could offer profitable flights," he said. "They could offer sufficient flights for people to fly in an out of this airports."





Dan Bubb, assistant professor, UNLV

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