There are over 327 million people living in the United States. Of those 327+ million Americans, roughly 80% live in urban areas. That’s over 261 million Americans living in urban areas. One benefit of living in an urban area is access to major airports that are connected to cities across the United States and overseas. However, the 20% of the U.S. population that lives in rural areas, air travel is not a practical method of transportation primarily due to a lack of consistent demand. Yet, numerous small cities and communities across the United States are connected with commercial air service. How is it possible that airlines can serve cities with a population of just 50,000 and 25,000 residents. The answer dates back to the 1980s when the United States Congress added section 419 to the Federal Aviation Act. That section established the Essential Air Service (EAS) program.
What Is The Essential Air Service (EAS) Program
Rural communities that wouldn’t normally be able to support commercial air service are able to do so thanks to the Essential Air Service program. The program, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), allows rural communities to support commercial air service through government subsidies. Routes that are part of the Essential Air Service program receive a lump-sum or per passenger subsidy from the federal government. These subsidies allow routes that would not typically be profitable or yield much return for an airline to operate without an airline or community incurring a loss.
In short, the Essential Air Service program is a major program that subsidies commercial air service for rural communities. The program aims to provide a “minimal level of commercial air service” for the community while also ensuring that these flights are priced so that air travel is accessible to much of that community’s residents. The Essential Air Service program provides subsidies either directly to the community and its primary airport or to the airline providing that service. While not all that exciting, the Essential Air Service program may allow travelers the chance to enjoy a private-jet like experience for less than the price of a pair of Apple AirPods. Here’s how.
The Airlines That Serve Rural Communities
There are a number of airlines that operate subsidized air service as part of the Essential Air Service program. The airlines providing air service to these communities aren’t just small regional carriers. American Airlines’ regional carrier, American Eagle, and Delta Air Lines’ regional carrier, Delta Connection, both operate subsidized air service to EAS communities. However, much of the service that is provided as part of the Essential Air Service program is provided by much smaller regional carriers. In Alaska, the majority of the state’s subsidized air service is operated by small regional carriers typically utilizing aircraft that use propellers and seat less than 9 passengers at a time.
Additionally, some routes are operated by airlines that operate aircraft in VIP configurations, configurations designed for private air travel, or aircraft that are often utilized by private jet operators. With fares on subsidized routes often available for less than $100 or $50 one-way, the Essential Air Service program allows any traveler the chance to enjoy a private-jet like experience for a fractional of the price.
Routes & Airlines That Offer A Private-Jet Like Experience
It should be noted, however, that while an airline may operate an aircraft that features a more luxurious layout, passengers should not expect private-jet like service. Airlines that provide service as part of the Essential Air Service program are doing so as part of a government program. That being said, these airlines are looking to maximize profit even at the expense of the passenger experience. On many routes, passengers may not receive something as simple as an in-flight beverage service. Still, with many of the subsidized flights going out close to empty and operated with small private-jet like aircraft, routes offered as part of the Essential Air Service program may be the closest many will get to flying private. But, not all routes offer a private-jet like experience. Here are a few of the routes that offer passengers private-jet like experience.
Air Choice One – The Midwest & Plains
Air Choice One is a commuter airline based in St. Louis, Missouri. The airline has grown slowly since it commenced operations in 2010. Today, the airline’s fleet consisted almost entirely of Cessna 208Bs along with a single Beechcraft 1900C. Air Choice One will eventually receive additional Beechcraft 1900Cs. However, this isn’t great news for passengers as the Cessna 208B, while small, features a rather comfortable cabin.
With a maximum of just 8 passengers per aircraft, flights operated by Air Choice One provide a feeling of exclusivity. Additionally, Air Choice One’s Cessna 208Bs feature leather seats in a 1-1 configuration. While these aircraft don’t look much like a luxury private jet, the 8 seat cabin and comfortable leather seats are an upgrade from what’s offered by most major airlines. Air Choice One’s flights start at just $25 one-way. The commuter airline’s route network is focused on the Midwest with a few routes that expand into the Plains and South.
Ultimate Air Shuttle – The Midwest & East Coast
Though Ultimate Air Shuttle’s flights are operated by aircraft that closely resemble traditional commercial aircraft, the regional airline provides a far more enjoyable and streamlined passenger experience. Ultimate Air Shuttle serves Chicago, Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Atlanta. However, unlike major airlines and regional carriers, Ultimate Air Shuttle operates from smaller secondary airports. The airline also operates from private aviation facilities as opposed to passenger terminals. Ultimate Air Shuttle’s unique operation allows passengers to enjoy a private jet-like experience without paying private jet prices.
Passenger amenities include free parking, access to a pre-departure lounge, and of course, bypassing busy passenger terminals and airport security. Once onboard passengers should expect a passenger cabin that closely resembles other regional airliners. However, unlike other regional airlines, Ultimate Air Shuttle offers free snacks and drinks on all of its flights. Ultimate Air Shuttle is the ideal compromise between commercial and private air travel. This is especially true, considering that flights start at just $214 one-way.
Boutique Air – Nationwide
Much of Boutique Air’s route network is subsidized by the federal government through the Essential Air Service program. The regional carrier operates a fleet of 34 aircraft. 27 of those 34 aircraft are Pilatus PC-12s, which offer just 8 seats per aircraft. The seats onboard the airline’s PC-12s are much wider than a standard coach seat offered by most airlines. Additionally, each seat offers a great deal of legroom and power outlets for personal devices. Unlike other regional turboprop aircraft, the PC-12 features a full-enclosed lavatory.
Boutique Air, like other airlines on this list, utilizes private aviation facilities at the majority of the airline’s destinations. This allows passengers to bypass busy passenger terminals and airport security. Plus, because the airline utilizes private aviation facilities, passengers will even have the opportunity to take one of those cliche “boarding the plane” Instagram pictures. Boutique Air operates flights as part of the Essential Air Service program on a number of routes across the United States. Flights start at just $59 one-way, a fraction of the price to charter your own private Pilatus PC-12.
Advanced Air – South & West Coast
If there’s one airline on this list that truly embraces the private jet-like experience, it’s Advanced Air. This LA-based charter operator and regional airline operates a handful of Essential Air Service routes in the south and along the west coast. Like Boutique Air, much of Advanced Air’s flights are flown using the Pilatus PC-12. Some routes are also operated by the Dornier 328 and King Air 350. Each of these aircraft offers a very comfortable and private passenger cabin. Advanced Air’s cabins are also a minor step up from Boutique Air as Advanced Air also uses the aircraft for private charters.
Like other airlines on this list, Advanced Air operates from private aviation facilities and secondary airports. As previously mentioned, this allows passengers to bypass crowded airports and traditional airport security. Flights on these private jet-like aircraft start at just $33 one-way.
Essential Air Service Program – The Bottom Line
The Essential Air Service program has enabled small cities and rural communities across the United States to offer its residents nonstop flights to major cities. Without this government program, those living in rural communities would have to spend hours driving hundreds of miles to the nearest airport with commercial air service. However, with airlines only required to provide a minimum level of service to these communities, a number of small airlines are tasked with operating these subsidized routes. This has created a unique opportunity for travelers that want to experience private air travel but don’t have thousands of dollars lying around to charter a jet.
With many of the aircraft used on Essential Air Service routes featuring less than 10 seats and operated with aircraft often used for private air travel, passengers can get a private jet-like experience for less than $50 one-way. That is a truly unbeatable price, considering the average per hour cost of a private jet start at $3,000.