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Clipped wings for Essential Air Service?

May 1, 2003


Clipped wings for Essential Air Service?

More folks may be taking buses or trains instead of planes, if the Bush administration has its way.

In February 2003, the administration proposed that the nation's Essential Air Service (EAS) program, which subsidizes commercial flights to small airports, be halved from $113 million to $50 million. The White House said the service should be limited to truly remote locations, and it said communities should provide matching funds.

"For any small town ... that's a nasty blow," said Mark Johnson, the airport supervisor in Thief River Falls, Minn. The effect on business and tourism could be severe, he added. Northwest Airlines relies on the subsidy to provide service to Thief River Falls.

As of Feb. 1, 2003, the EAS program subsidized air service to 125 communities nationwide. Seventeen of those communities are in the Ninth District: seven in Montana, three in North Dakota, four in South Dakota, one in Minnesota and two in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, one of which is shared with its Wisconsin neighbor.

The EAS program, administered by the U.S. Department on Transportation, ensures that small communities—that received scheduled passenger air service before deregulation of the airline industry in 1978—continue to have access to the nation's air transportation system. Eligible communities need to be located more than 70 highway miles from the nearest airport hub, and air carriers, not the communities themselves, apply for EAS subsidies.

States like Montana, with EAS programs in place, are concerned about the administration's proposed cuts in this program, said Bruce Putnam, director of aviation at Logan International Airport in Billings, Mont. "We will once again be expressing our concerns to our congressional delegation and are sure they will be as responsive and helpful as they have been historically in reinstating appropriate funding levels. This EAS program is very important to rural communities all over America," Putnam said.

The city of Havre, Mont., would have to match $70,000 in order to maintain air service if the proposal gets through Congress. "I could have a bake sale every day, and I couldn't come up with $70,000 to pay that bill," said Bob Rice, Havre's mayor.

"In theory," the proposed cuts in EAS will be voted on for the 2004 budget by Sept. 30, 2003, said Giles Giovinazzi, assistant counsel of the House Democratic Aviation Subcommittee. He added that the committee will know more later this spring. In the meantime, the nation's airports, which benefit from this program, have high hopes that it won't be deplaned.

See also: Map of Ninth District EAS Communities
Regional airports: embarking on smoother skies