Federal statistics reviewed by The Associated Press show that in 2010, just 227 passengers flew out of Ely while the airline got $1.8 million in subsidies. The travelers paid $70 to $90 for a one-way ticket. The cost to taxpayers for each ticket: $4,107.
Ely is one of 153 rural communities where airlines get subsidies through the $200 million Essential Air Service program, and one of 13 that critics say should be eliminated from it. Some call the spending a boondoggle, but others see it as a critical financial lifeline to ensure economic stability in rural areas.
Steve Smith, executive director of the Jackson, Tenn., airport authority, also has seen empty or near empty flights take off, since the airlines get paid per flight, not per passenger. The subsidy amounted to $244 for each of the 2,514 people who flew out of Smith's airport last year, though few if any passengers knew that.
"They fly the empty plane so they can still get the money," Smith said.
The fight over the subsidies was a key sticking point that led to the recent political standoff in Washington that temporarily shut down the Federal Aviation Administration, putting thousands out of work for nearly two weeks. There were other disputes as well, such as a GOP proposal that would make it more difficult for airline workers to unionize.
Republicans got the EAS cuts they were looking for in last week's agreement—but with a major caveat. Subsidies to Ely, Jackson and 11 other communities are set to end, but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has the authority to continue them if he decides it's necessary.
Rep. David McKinley, a Republican who came into office with tea party support, sided on the issue with Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a fellow West Virginian who has used his position as chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to support the current funding.
Flights out of Morgantown, W.Va., were among those targeted by other Republicans. A $1 million subsidy amounted to about $52 for each of Morgantown's more than 10,000 passengers last year.
McKinley describes himself "as a small government, free-market focused owner of a small business," but said airports that receive subsidies "serve as crucial engines of job creation for many small towns and rural areas.