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Free flights help small airports win big money

From Drew Griffin and Kathleen Johnston, CNN Special Investigations Unit
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Airports give free flights
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • North Central West Virginia airport offers free sightseeing flights to boost numbers
  • Other small airports offer free flights, Christmas light tours to increase passenger traffic
  • Republican senator wants FAA and Government Accountability Office to investigate
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Clarksburg, West Virginia (CNN) -- North Central West Virginia Airport boasts quick check-ins, free, accessible parking and a convenient baggage claim.

That's not surprising, considering that fewer than 20 people fly out of the facility on any given day. And all three scheduled daily departures to Washington have a stop in Morgantown, West Virginia, only 35 miles away. But the airport offers a special treat as the end of the year approaches -- free sightseeing flights.

Thanks to a Federal Aviation Administration program that gives small regional airports millions of dollars if they can reach a certain level of passenger traffic, the Clarksburg, West Virginia, facility tries its best to get 10,000 passengers off the ground by the end of the year. For Suzanne Pierson, that meant she and her grandson Donavan got an "awesome" bird's-eye view of Clarksburg and neighboring Bridgeport, West Virginia, from a chartered Boeing 757 last December.

"They were trying to meet the quota, and they were 300 passengers short," said Pierson, who saw an ad placed by the airport advertising the free flights.

Since the difference between 10,000 and 9,999 is the difference between $1 million and $150,000 in federal funds, airport managers in Clarksburg and other small towns do whatever they can to get over that number. In Kearney, Nebraska, residents get to take aerial tours of the city's Christmas lights for $15. In Altoona, Pennsylvania, residents got free 10-minute flights to reach the local airfield's goal of 10,000 passengers.

Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who is a frequent critic of federal spending, said "about 40" airports are believed to offer similar flight programs to reach the threshold, which was set by Congress. Coburn is asking the FAA and the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to come up with a definitive figure.

"The whole purpose for that isn't to say what you're doing is illegal -- it's probably not -- but to have a more cogent policy that truly represents the needs based on enplanements for every airport," Coburn said. He said federal support for small airports like Clarksburg's "should be earned in terms of grant process," not by gaming the system.

"We created the incentive to kind of weasel on it so you can get more money, and it's exacerbated now because of the economic downturn," Coburn said.

Clarksburg is about 200 miles west of Washington and about 110 miles south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where most area residents catch flights when they travel by air. But airport director Rick Rock said an economic benefit analysis said the facility contributes about $395 million into the local economy, "So I definitely think there's no question that we need this airport."

In addition to the $1 million based on passenger traffic, the Clarksburg airport got $30 million to lengthen its runway in 1999 and another $1.6 million from the Obama administration's economic stimulus bill in 2009. Local students get free flights to Washington for school trips as well, Rock said. And the airport just got another $150,000 grant from the FAA to promote itself.

Rock said the money is needed to meet FAA mandates for security, runway paving and safety, and he's proud of what the facility has achieved -- particularly for students.

"We're trying to introduce aviation to them at a young age, so they can look at it as a career," he said. "A lot of these kids have never had the chance to fly. We've been able to share that opportunity, and the kids love it. It's special."

But Coburn said at least five airports have used "creative ways" to keep the money flowing in and has managed to get support for a congressional investigation to find out how airports like North Central West Virginia can get so much money for so few passengers.