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Alaska Essential Air Service tangled in political turbulence
February 11, 2011
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  • By Rob Stapleton

    February 3, 2011

    Aproposed amendmentto curtail government-subsidized scheduled air service to rural locations in Alaska and the U.S. has sent air carriers, village leaders and the aviation industry into immediate action.

    “We were notified on Tuesday afternoon by Sen. Begich’s staffers that a bill had been introduced to curtailEssential Air Serviceby Sen. (John) McCain,” said Joy Journeay, executive director of the Alaska Air Carriers Association. “About 15 minutes later we were called by Peninsula Airways’ contacts in Washington, D.C., that the bill was introduced and we needed to act immediately.”

    Essential Air Service is a government subsidy that provides funding for air service into remote and rural areas with twice-weekly flights. It is managed by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

    Journeay quickly issued an e-mail blast that asked for letters to be sent to Begich’s staff for a reading on the Senate floor Wednesday.”Evidently Begich’s office received letters, explaining the devastating effect this would have, from Calista Regional Corp., the village of Kake and several air carriers,” Journeay said.

    Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) proposed an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill — pending on the Senate floor — to eliminate the $200 million Essential Air Service program. The national program provides scheduled service to about 150 communities across the U.S., from Adak, Alaska, to Muscle Shoals, Ala.

    Alaska currently has 44 communities served by air carriers with EAS contracts. These Alaska communities are either off the road system or difficult to reach by road, unlike communities in the Lower 48.While the lack of air service would hurt all Alaska communities, areas in the Aleutians, Southeast and Kodiak Island would be hardest hit, and could be left stranded.

    “A lack of air service to Petersburg, Wrangell and Cordova would be disastrous to the fishing industry and would have a dramatic impact on the economy of Alaska,” said Wrangell resident Brian Ashton.

    Ashton relies on EAS transportation to towns in Alaska, as well as to Seattle, to do what, he calls, his garage-based business of providing specialized fish incubators for hatcheries around the state and Lower 48.

    “EAS is an extension of the U.S. transportation infrastructure. We don’t have interstate highways here that connect us to the lower 48 states like other places that have roads,” Ashton said. “While some would argue why we should get a subsidy for air service, I argue that we provide viable economic benefits to the U.S. with oil, mining, fish and timber. We deserve federal funding for transportation just as much, if not more than other US locations.”

    According to The Washington Post, Begich, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia circulated a letter among Democratic senators for signatures, urging McCain to give up his attempt to kill the program, citing potential economic consequences to states that rely on the subsidized air service

    Some argue that twice-daily jet service into the communities of Cordova, Petersburg, Wrangell and Gustavus served by Alaska Airlines is not essential, but Ashton feels differently.

    “Without these flights, we in Southeast would not receive fresh produce and fruits and other essentials, nor would the US and other countries receive fresh Alaskan seafood transported on those flights,” Ashton said.

    Reports that the proposed amendment has been tabled for the time being is good news for air carriers and the Alaska communities they serve. Aviation industry officials say the move by McCain may have just been a political ploy.

    “We applaud the Senate for wanting to save money, but we don’t want our state’s economic viability influenced by a political maneuver,” said Journeay. “We don’t want to be swept up in the same pot as the rest of the country in a sweeping generality.”

    Begich is trying to keep the FAA reauthorization bill clean, but this and other additions to the bill could complicate its passage, according to the Alaska Air Carriers Association.

    Meanwhile,McCain’s amendment set up a direct clash with Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who is the main sponsor of the FAA reauthorization bill and is a proponent of Essential Air Service.

    While politicians are potentially saber-rattling for their constituents, Alaskan air carriers who offer service are suspect of its continuation.

    Examples of air carriers and areas that could be affected in Alaska include Island Air of Kodiak, which serves 12 communities; Warbelow’s Air Service in Fairbanks serving six villages; Peninsula Airways, with flights to Akutan, Nikolski and Atka; and various carriers in southeast Alaska who serve 11 communities, many of which are accessed by float planes.

    The Transporation Department is currently seeking proposals from Southeast Alaska carriers for service to the community of Elfin Cove.

    Journeay and others in the industry are continuing to keep a close watch on this proposed amendment.

    This story originally reported that all 44 Alaska communities impacted are off the road system.

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