Deficits, Tea Party Poses Legitimate Threat to Essential Air Service

 - March 11, 2011, 9:45 AM
The venerable Beech 1900D still serves as the backbone of the U.S. Essential Air Service fleet.

In an all-too-predictable development, members of Congress have launched their annual attack on the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, again forcing the Regional Airline Association to devote disproportionate energy toward defending a relatively paltry $200 million out of the more than $129 billion in transportation spending the Obama Administration has proposed for FY2012.

This time, however, unusually heated rhetoric over budget deficits has raised the stakes for the RAA and the more than 150 communities whose businesses depend on the air service supported by the EAS program’s modest largesse. As the RAA and several like-minded alphabet groups have noted, a negative outcome could mean the end of their lifeline to the nation’s air transportation network and a descent into further economic malaise, or worse.

Happily for the RAA, the Senate, by a vote of 61 to 38, tabled an amendment to its FAA Reauthorization bill proposed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would have completely cut the $200 million that funds the program. Although the Senate preserved the $200 million funding level, another amendment that did pass limits EAS to locations 90 or more miles away from the nearest medium- or large-hub airport and with 10 or more daily enplanements.

Authored by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla), that amendment grants the DOT discretion to continue to serve locations otherwise disqualified by the new criteria under “unique circumstances.” According to Faye Malarkey Black, RAA senior vice president of government affairs, the Senate has yet to detail what circumstances would trigger the so-called hardship provision, “so we expect clarification before conference,” she said. “RAA will certainly be working our tails off to make sure any ‘unique circumstances’ criteria make sense.”

Meanwhile, the version of FAA reauthorization introduced by House Republicans offers a “staggered approach” to reducing and eventually dismantling the program in the lower 48 states. The bill calls for cuts each year until funding dwindles to $80 million in FY2013, after which time it would eliminate EAS service in every state other than Alaska and Hawaii.

Rep. Bill Schuster (R-Pa.) offered and then withdrew an amendment to restore the funding and authority for EAS during a markup of the panel.

According to Black, Schuster withdrew the amendment not because he no longer wanted the funding, but because he expected to take part in negotiations with committee leadership to restore some or all of the EAS subsidies. Indeed, House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) suggested that members would reach a compromise on EAS before the bill moves to the House floor, likely via a manager’s amendment, said Black.

“Our hope is that the House language will ultimately include only modest proposed cuts to the EAS program, which will then be subject to further negotiations, ideally resulting in full funding, during the eventual House-Senate conference,” she added.

“RAA worked this issue pretty tirelessly over the past few months [and years, really],” said Black. “We covered every legislative office on Capitol Hill either in person or through a letter we put together joining various other aviation stakeholders in support of the program. We’ve met with a lot of support on Capitol Hill. We are optimistic that common sense will prevail and Congress will resist the urge to cut this important program.”

This year’s efforts to not only cut the EAS budget, but eliminate it completely, comes as the political rhetoric over deficit reduction has reached temperatures perhaps not seen since the 1980s. Meanwhile, Black noted, the newly elected tea party contingency has helped influence a distinct move to the right over funding policy and the role of government. “We understand the need for prudent fiscal policy, but eliminating the EAS program would be akin to placing a meaningless band aid on our nation’s economy while severing an economic lifeline serving small-town America,” she concluded.