PIERRE, S.D., DEC. 29 -- Dennis Maloney used to have a heck of a time getting here. When the Aberdeen, S.D., lawyer needed to do business in this compact state capital, he faced a choice of driving three hours each way or taking a roundabout commercial flight that forced him to go first to Minneapolis -- 260 miles in the wrong direction.
Since October, however, Maloney has been able to make the trip direct and nonstop, on a fledgling airline kept aloft in large part by the taxpayers of South Dakota.
In an effort to bring back what airline deregulation took away from them more than 10 years ago, legislators in this far-flung state decided to start their commercial air service, voting subsidies of up to $1.2 million this year to put eight South Dakota cities back on the nation's commercial aviation map.
The move is being closely watched by other states in the nation's rural midsection, parts of which have become increasingly isolated as the nation's major airlines abandoned them in the 1980s. Several, including Nebraska, Iowa and North Dakota, are taking steps to follow South Dakota's lead.
"We've had no access among our major cities since airline deregulation," said Maloney, who chairs the year-old South Dakota Airline Authority.
"Our communities could access the major hubs of Minneapolis and Denver," but with few exceptions, "the rest of the state could not access each other," he added.
Business people and government officials, in particular, have been forced for years to make arduous drives across the state's rolling plains and ranch land or even longer and more arduous flights out of state to get from one point to another.
The lack of good air links prompted some institutions, such as South Dakota State University in Brookings, a 3 1/2-hour drive from the capital, to maintain their private air fleets.
"In a state like this, especially in the wintertime, it can make a great difference," said Gary Sheeley, a university technician who often commutes to Pierre. "Driving can be really treacherous."
But what motivated legislators to hire a small, Nebraska-based airline called GP Express and guarantee up to $1.2 million in subsidies to keep it flying was the fear of what could happen to the state's economy without it, Maloney said.
"Companies don't expand to communities that don't have air service. They just don't," he said.
Under a schedule that began Oct. 8, GP Express flies daily round trips from its hub at Pierre to Sioux Falls, Aberdeen, Brookings, Spearfish, Huron, Mitchell and Yankton. The flights, on eight- and 14-seat propeller planes, are timed to allow one-day business trips.
Business so far has been slow, with less than 40 percent of the seats filled, according to Dave Jagim, who supervises the system for the South Dakota Transportation Department.
But Jagim calls that "pretty positive, 60 days into the service," and predicts the number of passengers will pick up when the state legislature convenes its annual three-month session next month.
For good measure, however, the airline has begun offering deep discounts, including half-price flights through next month. Outside observers say the jury is still out on whether the airline will last past its first year.
"South Dakota had a real motivation for doing this," said Matt Hardison, a Maryland transportation consultant who studied a similar proposal for Iowa. "The logistics of getting people around the state in South Dakota are extraordinary. . . . The problem with their approach is that it's extremely expensive."
In North Dakota, by contrast, officials may have come up with a way to provide air service without costing taxpayers a dime.
Last month, the University of North Dakota announced a deal under which the national airline of Taiwan would subsidize a new commuter airline based in the capital, Bismarck.
The idea emerged from the university's Center for Aerospace Sciences, which for the last two years has been training Taiwanese student pilots under a contract with China Airlines.
The program was started to help make up for what university officials say is a projected decline in the number of commercial pilots trained by the U.S. military; it gives students basic training and up to 300 hours of flight time.
But the Taiwan carrier wanted to expand the arrangement, said Gary Ness, director of the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission. "They were looking at the possibility of their students gaining a little more experience before they put them into their fleet," he said.
Under the proposed arrangement, apparently the first of its kind in the country, China Airlines would lease airplanes to a local air carrier hired by the university and would also provide Taiwanese students to serve as co-pilots.
"It will be kind of like the farm system in baseball. You gain a little experience and they move you up," Ness said. "But the co-pilot, instead of going to Northwest or TWA, will be going to China Airlines."
With its expenses thus reduced, the new carrier might be able to profitably serve North Dakota cities such as Minot, Fargo and Grand Forks, where air service was cut substantially after deregulation.