"We have no bus service here of any kind, no Greyhound or similar company," Coster said. "It's a small town."
Severin Borenstein, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who helped design the EAS program, said Congress originally intended for the program to end after 10 years. He said the subsidies are a "big problem" in place like Ely, which averages one or two passengers per flight.
"I can see the argument for making some of them permanent, but the standards should be higher," Borenstein said.
"The real story with this program nationwide is that nobody is watching it," said Smith, the Tennessee airport official. "If there is a problem with airports and airlines not carrying enough passengers and not doing what they said they would do, it's because once the contract is issued, it's like nobody ever asked a question about it again."
Contracts are awarded through a competitive bid process, and generally last two years.
The program has plenty of defenders who point out the cost is tiny compared with other transportation subsidies.
According to a 2009 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, highways got 76 percent of subsidies, mass transit 16 percent, aviation 6 percent and rail and maritime 3 percent. Pew estimates that transportation subsidies in 2008 came to about $45 billion, or $367 for every household in America.
Faye Malarkey Black, a vice president for the Regional Airline Association, said she believes few federal programs accomplish as much for $200 million as EAS does.
"They call it essential for a reason," she said. She said her industry group supports "common sense adjustments" for eligibility, but added that rural communities already struggle to attract and keep doctors and other professionals.
"If you take away air service, who wants to live in those communities?" she said.
Chadd Williams, a computer science professor at Pacific University, was flying back to Oregon from Morgantown after visiting family. He said a ticket to Morgantown typically costs him $75 to $100 more than one to Pittsburgh, about 75 miles away, but this time it cost about the same.
"It's very convenient to have this place," Williams said. He said his family sometimes drives to Pittsburgh, to pick him up, but "that's a stress on them, and it's difficult to get up to Pittsburgh on time with all the road construction. So it would be terrible to have this go away."
Flower shop owner Jim Coombs has been to the Morgantown airport seven times so far this summer to shuttle high school foreign exchange students to their host families. He'll be there seven more times to send them home.
The nearest international airport is about an hour and a half's drive north in Pittsburgh, but traveling there means time wasted in traffic and in Interstate 79 construction zones, not to mention the cost of gas and pricey parking versus free. Coombs says the fact that the northern West Virginia city has its own airport is a selling point for people considering jobs there.
"I think the people in Washington are the types that just think if it's not in a big area, it's not worth anything. They don't know what it's like here. They don't know what goes on here," Coombs said.
In Alamogordo, officials said number-crunching doesn't explain the full value of access to air transportation.
Saddled between southern New Mexico's Sacramento Mountains and the desolate Tularosa Valley, residents don't have any options for air travel other than twice daily, federally subsidized round-trip flights, said airport manager Parker Bradley.
"It doesn't have to do with airports closing. It has to do with the availability or lack of availability of transportation. That can be a very important thing for a community," he said.
Begos reported from Pittsburgh and Sainz reported from Jackson, Tenn. AP reporters Joan Lowy in Washington, Vicki Smith in Morgantown, W. Va., Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, N.Y., Cristina Silva in Las Vegas, Matt Gouras in Helena, Mont., and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., contributed to this story.
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