Are you paying for an airstrip of convenience?

Taxpayers are paying to subsidize several airports around the country. Many don’t service commercial passengers and do very little to add to the communities in which they reside. Take Williamsburg-Whitley County Airport in Kentucky. It was built with $11 million in cash from the U.S. government and usually sees only a handful of flights a day take off or touch down – some days, the runway is empty.

The source of this largesse? A federal program that few know about. To understand what’s going on, you’ll need to think back to the last airline ticket you bought.

You know the drill, there’s the price on the screen … and then there’s the price you pay. In addition to the fare, you realize quickly that fees and taxes can mount to seemingly absurd proportions, but you have little choice in the matter. The taxes alone can hit 15 percent of what you pay for a flight. Have you ever wondered where that money goes?

(Well, now you know that a piece of it goes to Williamsburg-Whitley County Airport.)

Some of the tax money from air travel transactions is used to build new airports and maintain others – a network of 2,834 in total in the United States – that do not service passenger flights. These “general-aviation” airports are separate from the 139 commercial airports in the country that take care of almost all passenger flights.

USA Today, which deserves a hell of a lot of credit for digging into this, reviewed the first full examination of the 28-year-old Airport Improvement Program and found that $15 billion was sent to general-aviation airports. That’s a considerable amount of cash to give recreational fliers a place to land.

In all fairness, there is probably some truth to the notion that these airports can attract commercial and residential development and provide some important services around medical transport via air, as some members of Congress insist. But, is it enough to justify the expense?

To Congressmen, perhaps.

USA Today reports that that “[m]embers of Congress took 2,154 trips on corporate-owned jets from 2001 to 2006,” per a 2006 study by independent research group PoliticalMoneyLine. Again, in fairness, some of these airports actually provide access to their constituents. But, should a taxpayer in San Francisco finance an airport in North Andover, Massachusetts?

However you quantify the utility, it seems as though the cost is a lot higher than the benefit.

Jonathan Ornstein, CEO of Mesa Air Group (a regional), tells USA Today, “Congressmen are spending millions building runways at these little airports. That is just a complete waste of money.” This is especially the case, he says, when “there is a huge requirement to overhaul infrastructure at major airports.”

Click here to read the entire investigation and analysis; it’s worth it.