Tiny-Town Troubles: Delta Eliminating Service to 24 Small Airports

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Delta Airlines announced that it “can no longer afford” to continue service at 24 small U.S. airports, and members of various communities are left wondering how they will fly.

All major airlines have been reducing and eliminating service to small cities for several years. But now that Delta — which, because it has merged with Northwest, has the biggest fleet of planes and the largest number of passengers in the world — plans to eliminate service at 24 small-town airports, people are taking particular notice. Delta said in a statement that flights in places like Thief River Falls, Minn., Aberdeen, S.D., and Greenville, Miss., “on average depart with 52% of the seats filled, with some locations as low as 12%” and they expect that the cut could save the airline as much as $14 million a year, reported the New York Times.

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The airline says that in addition to the cost savings, it has also been removing less fuel-efficient aircraft from its fleet, including 50-seat regional jets that provide a good portion of service to small towns. But the announcement was met with criticism because some believe that the decision is tied more to what is known as the Essential Air Service program and its impending expiration. Under the program, small airports receive millions of dollars in federal subsidies to maintain air service in their locations. The subsidies, however, are scheduled to expire in 2013, and, according the the Times report, Delta acquired many of those small-city markets when it merged with Northwest.

For example, about $1.7 million a year in federal subsidies pays for Delta flights from Northwest Alabama Regional Airport in Muscle Shoals. The airport is one of the 24 Delta plans to stop serving unless it receives larger subsidies through the Essential Air Service program.

Frances Romero is a writer-reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @frances_romero. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.