AIN Blog: Essential Air Service Is a Promise Worth Keeping

 - August 18, 2011, 6:23 AM

A measure in the latest temporary FAA funding extension to completely cut the Essential Air Service (EAS) program in the lower 48 states by October 2013 will no doubt face some stiff opposition from the likes of Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and well it should.

Rockefeller, a staunch defender of the EAS program over the years, proved instrumental in rescuing Morgantown, W.Va., from the proverbial chopping block after Congress voted to increase the minimum qualifying driving distance between subsidized airports and the nearest medium-size or large hub from 70 to 90 miles, effectively removing 10 communities from the subsidy roles.

Reid, meanwhile, rode to the aid of Ely, Nev., after a provision added by Representative John Mica (R-Fla.) to lower the maximum subsidy per person to $1,000 threatened to eliminate three more towns, which included Ely.

Happily for the businesses and individuals who depend on Colgan Air’s subsidized Saab 340 service from Morgantown to Washington Dulles International Airport and Great Lakes Airlines’ Beech 1900 flights from Ely to Las Vegas, both Rockefeller and Reid received “assurances” from the Department of Transportation (DOT) that the carriers wouldn’t lose their funding for their respective routes until the latest extension of FAA authorization runs its course on September 16.

But, to shamelessly borrow a phrase from Washington’s jargon lexicon, the senators and DOT have managed to do no more than “kick the can down the road” until Congress returns from recess and more than likely does its usual dance over a 22nd temporary FAA funding extension.

Each year the EAS program faces threats from free-market ideologues bent on cutting public funding for air service. Thankfully, for the more than 100 airports in the lower 48 states that depend on EAS for their only link to the country’s air transport grid, their efforts have met with only limited success, and funding has progressively increased over the past couple of years, to close to $200 million.

During the last session of Congress, however, the confluence of an undeniable budget deficit crisis and the rise of a vocal minority known as the Tea Party posed the most serious threat the EAS program has encountered in several years. Only intervention by the DOT has saved 13 cities from complete defunding, and the meager $200 million program that advocates have managed to muster over the past few years now appears critically endangered.

When Congress passed the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, lawmakers promised that communities receiving scheduled air service before regulation would continue to do so after deregulation. To uphold that promise, Congress established the EAS program. Thirty-three years later, the underlying principle behind that promise remains just as valid. In fact, one might argue that now, more than ever, the undeniable decline of small-town America calls for the kind of government help lawmakers designed programs such as EAS to deliver.

Reasonable people can argue over whether certain EAS cities might not need or deserve their subsidies, but eliminating the program in the lower 48 states will do virtually nothing to solve the country’s debt problem. Sadly, ideologues don’t let facts influence their view of reality, and when Congress reconvenes, we can count on more of the same tension between those who believe in shaping government to advance societal goals and those simply determined to tear government down. The EAS fight is just a symptom of that far more overarching, and disturbing, phenomenon.