Last updated: 02:30 PM ET, Tue March 15 2016

Don’t Forget about Us: The Effort to Improve Rural Air Travel

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | March 15, 2016

Don’t Forget about Us: The Effort to Improve Rural Air Travel

The House version of the FAA reauthorization bill has been put on the shelf because of controversy surrounding the privatization of America's air traffic control system.

Issues like ATC, capping airline fees and regulating seat size on planes have stolen the headlines in recent weeks. However, one of the latest versions of the bill highlights something that is not often talked about by the media, lobbyists or politicians: air travel options and infrastructure in rural parts of the country.

Rural air travel difficulties 

South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, is trying to introduce his own versions of the reauthorization bill that will, among other things, improve air travel in rural areas.

Thune recently wrote an op-ed to highlight his ideas to the people of South Dakota, which is a largely rural state. Thune explains that multi-leg journeys are commonplace for fliers who come from non-urban areas. Because of this, and because smaller airports have limited flight options, there is a higher likelihood that delays will seriously impact a trip.

“Even on the best flying days, travelers often face fewer options at smaller airports. Add the seasonal threats of inclement weather to the mix and all bets are off, because with many flights from South Dakota connecting through major hubs in other parts of the region, one stray storm can have a ripple effect that leads to missed or canceled flights on future legs of a trip.”

READ MORE: Air Traffic Control Privatization Bill Has Been Sidelined

But what can be done about this?

One could argue that airlines have no choice but to offer fewer options because there is limited demand at small airports. And the delays? That is just an unavoidable part of air travel that all fliers have to live with regardless of where they fly. 

Thune contends that a few parts of his version of the reauthorization bill will benefit rural fliers. The Airport Improvement Program, which is up for reauthorization, provides funds to rural airports in places like South Dakota so that they can make improvements and undertake expansion projects if needed.

READ MORE: Sen. Schumer Takes Seat-Size Fight to FAA Reauthorization Bill

Perhaps more important in terms of creating new options for rural fliers is the Small Community Air Service Development Program. In its current form, Thune's bill increases funding for this particular program, which helps rural airports attract service from commercial airlines.

Appealing to voters, but also bringing up an often-ignored issue

Thune seems to be tailoring the message in the op-ed to get the attention and support of the rural and small-city voters who make up South Dakota’s electorate. At the same time, however, he is bringing up a unique subject. The issues surrounding rural commercial air travel are not often discussed by the media or by politicians and lobbyists. 

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