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Essential Air Service: Where Are the Biggest Markets

A United Express CRJ-200 arriving into Chicago O’Hare (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

Essential Air Service (EAS) is truly a hot issue with EAS routes changing more in the past year than they have in the past five, with airlines requesting to terminate service left and right. The top EAS carriers have also shifted, with Contour and Southern Airways Express slowly growing in the contracts that they hold.

But, with the carriers constantly changing, it is sometimes hard to keep track of what airlines fly to where, and which hubs are the biggest and smallest in terms of the number of EAS communities that they serve.

The Biggest EAS Hubs

There are many hubs that have only one or two EAS routes out of them, and will never be large in the EAS hub game as they don’t really serve as a hub for much anything else and are simply “medium or large” class airports that small airlines use to base operations. These include examples like Cape Air and its Billings Montana hub or Advanced Air and its Albuquerque hub just to name a few in the countless that contain just a few EAS routes.

But, there are countless other hubs that have dropped significantly in ranking over the years, like St. Louis and Salt Lake City which both used to have a much larger presence in the government-subsidized EAS program, but with airlines like Great Lakes Airlines collapsing and Cape Air downsizing, are both down to three EAS routes each.

While there are hubs that grow and shrink, some manage to stay relatively the same over the years. This includes airports like Detroit, which has managed to keep the same five EAS communities connected to it for a long time, with SkyWest under the Delta Connection brand.

Third Largest: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Minneapolis has dropped in and out of the top three ranking of EAS hubs but has always managed to stay relatively close with the number of EAS communities it possesses, although the airlines serving the cities has changed a little bit. This hub flies to 12 unique EAS communities with three different airlines, the largest being SkyWest under the Delta Connection brand with nine routes, followed by Denver Air Connection with two, and finally Sun Country with a single EAS route from MSP.

Delta Connection currently serves all of their EAS cities from MSP with 50-seat CRJ-200s. But, SkyWest has posted documents stating it will switch to the CRJ-700 or CRJ-900 in October of 2023 due to a directive from Delta on the need to serve every Delta-branded city with dual-class aircraft regardless of whether it’s an EAS community or not.

EAS communities it serves from Minneapolis/St. Paul includes Aberdeen, S.D.; Rhinelander, Wis.; Bemidji, Brainerd, International Falls, and Hibbing in Minnesota; and Iron Mountain, Escanaba, and Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan.

One of Delta’s CRJ-200s at Minneapolis St. Paul (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

Denver Air Connection is the second-largest EAS carrier in Minneapolis with two routes; Thief River Falls, Minn., and Ironwood, Mich. All of its EAS flights from this ‘hub’ are scheduled to operate on their unique 30-seat Dornier328Jet, although the airline does occasionally swap in the 50-seat Embraer E145.

Sun Country, is the smallest EAS carrier in Minneapolis, and perhaps one of the most unique EAS communities out there. The route is served by the airlines 186-seat Boeing 737-800, and it operates only three times a week; Monday Thursday, and Friday. There was a huge argument when this contract was awarded as the airline technically does not satisfy the EAS requirements as it operates less than daily flights to a major connecting hub.

Taxiing out of Eau Claire back to Minneapolis (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

Second Largest: Chicago O’Hare

Chicago has continually grown in the number of EAS markets, as airlines switch away from smaller medium-sized ‘hub’ airports in the midwest like St. Louis. This hub serves 18 unique EAS communities with six different carriers; with the largest being SkyWest under the United Express brand having eight routes, Southern Airways Express and Contour Air both have three each, Denver Air Connection has two, and Cape Air and American Airlines both operate just a single EAS route from Chicago.

SkyWest under the United Express brand operates all of its EAS communities with 50-seat CRJ-200s from the Chicago hub. The EAS communities it serves from O’Hare include; Houghton, Mich.; Johnstown, Penn.; Decatur, Ill.; Joplin Miss.; Salina, Kan.; and Sioux City, Mason City, and Fort Dodge all of which are in Iowa. SkyWest is still trying to downsize the number of CRJ-200s that it operates due to the ongoing pilot shortage, and this number has dramatically shrunk for them, especially in the past two years, and will continue to drop.

Southern Airways Express, operates three EAS routes from O’Hare, all of which are operated on the airline’s 8-seat Cessna 208. The carrier is also the second newest EAS carrier at the airport as they started service to O’Hare less than a year ago, on Oct. 1, 2023. Its EAS communities from O’Hare include Muskegon, Mich.; Quincy, Ill.; and Burlington, Iowa.

A Southern Airways Express Cessna 208 (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

Contour is the newest EAS carrier in O’Hare and the fastest-growing EAS airline in the country, adding 14 new EAS cities in the past year and a half, with three of them being in Chicago and all of them starting less than a month ago and all on the same day, on Aug. 1, 2023.

All of these flights are scheduled to operate on the airline’s 30-seat Embraer E135 or E145s, although the carrier has recently been swapping in VIP 16-seat CRJ-200s recently, which are already use on Contour Air’s charter division, making those flights still operated by Contour, just a lot fancier than the E135/E145. It operates EAS flights from Chicago to Owensboro, Kentucky; Marion, Ill.; and Kirksville, Miss.

Denver Air Connection operates two EAS communities from Chicago, both of which are flown on the airline’s 50-seat Embraer E145s. From Chicago, the airline flies to Ironwood, Mich. and Watertown, S.D.

American Airlines has stayed pretty consistent and has had the same four EAS communities for many years, one of which operates from its already sizeable Chicago O’Hare hub and goes to Waterloo, Iowa. The only thing that has changed with the route over the years is that it has moved from operating on an Embraer E145s to a CRJ-200, both have 50-seats, but the operator of the flight keeps changing, starting out as Envoy, then Piedmont, and currently Air Wisconsin.

The operator of the flights could keep changing as American Airlines itself hold the contract, they can choose any of its regional operators to make the flight.

An American CRJ-200 in Charlotte (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Cape Air has drastically shrunk over the past couple of years, with mass termination requests due to pilot shortages has resulted in Southern Airways Express and Contour Air taking most of the EAS cities in the Midwest. The airline now remain with a single EAS route to Manistee, Mich, which it operates using their 8/9-seat Tecnam P2012 although their Cessna 402 does occasionally swap in when it is needed.

Largest EAS Hub: Denver

Denver is by far the largest Essential Air Service hub and has always been a big player in the EAS game, although the predominant EAS carrier has shifted over the years from Great Lakes Airlines to Boutique Air, to SkyWest, with it now slowly shifting away from SkyWest as it tries to terminate more EAS communities.

Denver holds 26 unique EAS routes over three airlines with the United Express brand being the largest holding 16 contracts, with SkyWest holding 14 of them and United Airlines themselves holding two of them. Denver Air Connection holds eight contracts from Denver and Southern Airways Express holds two.

The new home of Denver’s EAS airlines (Photo: Denver International Airport)

The United Express brand; United themselves holds the contracts in the communities of Dickinson, N.D., and Cody, Wyo. so it can choose whichever regional partner to operate these flights, and currently it is Commutair with the Embraer E145s. But as for the other 16, they are all held directly by SkyWest and operate on 50-seat CRJ-200s, although they are trying to switch flights to 30-seat CRJ which has yet to be given an official name, under the ‘SkyWest Charters’ brand, which is currently being fought over between the DOT, FAA, and SkyWest.

But until then the CRJ-200 will operate the routes to the following communities; Vernal, Utah; Prescott, Ariz.; Laramie, Wyo.; Sioux City, Iowa; Joplin, Miss.; Devils Lake and Jamestown, N.D.; Dodge City, Liberal, and Hays in Kansas; North Platte and Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Moab, Utah, and West Yellowstone, Mont. are summer seasonal EAS cities for the United Express brand under SkyWest.

A United Express CRJ-200 (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

The second largest EAS carrier in Denver is very appropriately named, Denver Air Connection, with eight EAS routes out of Denver. It serves Pierre and Watertown, S.D. using the 50-seat Embraer E145; Alliance and McCook, Nebraska as well as Cortez, Colo. with their 9-seat Fairchild Swearingin Metroliner. Clovis, N.M., and Alamosa, Colo. see a mix of 30-seat Dornier 328Jet and 50-seat Embraer E145, and it all depends on what day of the week and circumstances, as to what aircraft will be operating flights in these two communities.

DAC has been slowly growing over the past couple of years with most of its routes coming from Boutique Air, which has since stopped servicing Denver, and SkyWest which has slowly been dropping communities as part of their pilot shortage.

A lineup of Denver Air Connection planes in Denver (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

Southern Airways Express, the smallest EAS carrier in Denver serves two communities; Chadron, Nebraska, and Pueblo, Colorado. Technically under contract, both Chadron and Pueblo are supposed to receive the 8-seat King Air 200, but due to some aircraft shortages the airline uses a mix of King Air 200a and Pilatus PC12a to serve both cities, and the aircraft frequently switches between the types depending on the day and what is available.

Conclusion

Some of these cities are mentioned multiple times even just in the top three EAS hubs, which is due to the fact that some of the communities do connect with multiple hubs creating a unique experience for some passengers that decide to connect in these small communities when traveling between hubs. While connecting in an EAS community definitely adds more time and is not the most convenient, it can add a splash or excitement to your day when you land in a city you’ve never heard of before.

While the EAS contracts do last for years, usually in two or four-year blocks, there are a lot of EAS communities around the country so there are always at least two or three that are in the midst of the EAS process, so it is hard to pinpoint a time of the year when everything is stable and a community isn’t in the process of a hub or airline change. Not only do the airlines change the EAS program a lot, but the routes are even more flexible, especially in Alternate Essential Air Service (AEAS) communities, which don’t even need DOT approval to switch routes or frequencies.

As it stands, this article goes over the ranking and routes from the top three EAS hubs in the United States. The map below depicts all of the EAS routes in the lower 48, which is accurate as of the time this article was posted.

Routes from every EAS Airport in the lower 48 states, as of August 21, 2023 (Photo: Joey Gerardi | AirlineGeeks)

Joey Gerardi

Author

  • Joey Gerardi

    Joe has always been interested in planes, for as long as he can remember. He grew up in Central New York during the early 2000s when US Airways Express turboprops ruled the skies. Being from a non-aviation family made it harder for him to be around planes and would only spend about three hours a month at the airport. He was so excited when he could drive by himself and the first thing he did with the license was get ice cream and go plane spotting for the entire day. When he has the time (and money) he likes to take spotting trips to any location worth a visit. He’s currently enrolled at Western Michigan University earning a degree in Aviation Management and Operations.

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