WASHINGTON, D.C. - At a time when budgets are tight all across the nation, a federal program is spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on empty airline seats.
The Scripps National Investigative Team took a closer look at the Essential Air Service program. The Essential Air Service helps subsidize small airports. It was created in 1978 out of fear the larger airlines would abandon smaller airports during deregulation. The program was only supposed to last a few years, but 34 years later it's still being paid for by taxpayers.
"This is absolutely outrageous," said Florida Congressman John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation Committee which oversees the Air Service. "You know we're running $17 trillion in deficit."
MORE: See how much taxpayers are paying for EAS flights each year (mobile and tablet users, visit http://wfts.tv/JDSaGv)
Our investigation exposed one flight between Baltimore and Hagerstown, Maryland – just about 75 miles apart - was so sparse the captain allowed the only other passenger who wasn't our producer to sit in the co-pilot's seat. Some seats remained folded down for the round trip.
Two other flights between Baltimore and Hagerstown had just one other person on board and eight empty seats. A 19-seat plane from Cleveland to Dubois, Pennsylvania, about 180 miles east, had just one passenger as well.
Tom Schatz, President of the Washington-based group Citizens Against Government Waste said the Essential Air Service is non-essential. "Members of Congress like to have airports, they like the subsidies, it's a chance to show that they are spending money on behalf of their constituents," he added.
There are more than 100 subsidized flight routes across the country. In 2010, Congress allocated $200 million for the Essential Air Service program.
"It's an economic driver within those communities to have the ability to bring in outside business into rural areas of the country," said Brian Sowa of the lobbying group Rural Air Service Alliance. Sowa said flights are crucial for the economic development of small town America.
"It's gotta stop. The taxpayers can't afford it," said Congressman Mica.