Fate of EAS Program Far from Ensured

 - August 30, 2011, 6:25 AM

When Congress adjourned for summer recess last month without extending FAA funding for the 21st time, leaving thousands of furloughed workers in a state of limbo, only a promise to Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to “protect” small communities from a loss of scheduled air service would finally convince the Senate to pass a House bill described by Democrats as another exercise in hostage taking. But even though Congress managed to agree to a temporary extension until September 16, it left unanswered some vital questions about the future of the Essential Air Service (EAS) program.

Early in the year both bodies had introduced plans to curtail EAS spending by raising the qualifying driving distance from the nearest medium-size or large hub from 70 to 90 miles, effectively removing 10 communities from the subsidy rolls. However, the bill passed by the Republican-controlled House would eliminate the program in the lower 48 states by October 2013, threatening airline service to the 106 airports that rely exclusively on EAS flights. Only rural airports in Alaska and Hawaii would continue to get EAS subsidies under the House measure.

Long a champion of EAS subsidies, Senate Transportation Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller vowed to fight the House efforts to virtually dismantle the program. 

“As I told you on numerous occasions, EAS is critical to West Virginia. Specifically, I discussed how Morgantown and Clarksburg depend on the EAS program,” Rockefeller wrote in a letter to House Transportation Committee chairman John Mica (R-Fla.)“I strongly urge you to reconsider your position.”

Rather, Mica inserted a provision that would cap subsidies at $1,000 per ticket, adding three more communities to the proverbial chopping block–namely, Ely, Nev., which receives $3,720 per ticket; Alamogordo/Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., which gets $1,563; and Glendive, Mont., which collects $1,358 per passenger.

Despite much initial protest, the Senate agreed to adopt the House bill after LaHood said he could grant waivers that would allow the 13 communities threatened by the language in the latest extension to keep their funding. “I have received assurances from Secretary LaHood that the rural communities whose economies rely on air service will be protected,” said Reid in a statement.

Unfortunately, any such waiver could amount to just a temporary reprieve. This year’s efforts not only to cut the EAS budget but to eliminate it completely come as the political rhetoric over deficit reduction has reached temperatures perhaps not seen since the 1980s. Meanwhile, as RAA legislative affairs v-p Faye Malarkey Black noted in an email exchange with AIN earlier this year, the 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 said.

Speaking with AIN last month, RAA president Roger Cohen expressed similar sentiments. “The country’s gone through the most scrutinized debate over government spending over this whole summer,” said Cohen. “I’d have been shocked if [EAS] hadn’t come under more scrutiny this year than in the past. And I think the fact that in that environment, that the program has continued to survive and grow, really speaks to its importance.”