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Essential air program vital for Nebraska jobs and rural communities
February 11, 2011
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  • February 3, 2011

    February 3, 2011 — Nebraska’s Senator Ben Nelson and Senate colleagues have warned in a letter to Senator John McCain of Arizona that his proposal to eliminate the federal Essential Air Service program would hurt jobs, economic opportunity and travel in 106 rural communities nationwide, including seven in Nebraska, that rely on EAS funding to maintain commercial air service.

    “An adequate and reliable transportation system should be a national priority. Transportation infrastructure is essential for commerce and quality of life,” said Senator Nelson. “The essential air service program supports that infrastructure. Breaking that link would hurt job opportunities, economic growth and the Nebraska good life we all enjoy.

    “EAS promotes accessibility and growth in rural communities and in the surrounding rural areas—and I’ve seen the impact air service can have on a community’s ability to attract employers firsthand. Now more than ever, with our economy still wobbly, we need to keep the planes on the Plains,” said Nelson.

    The letter to McCain was sent by senators Nelson Mark Begich of Alaska, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Without EAS, a total of 62 communities in their states would lose commercial air service.

    According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, if the EAS program is shut down 7 rural communities in Nebraska and 106 rural communities nationwide would be economically disadvantaged because commercial air service to major air hubs would no longer exist. The Nebraska communities are Alliance, Chadron, Grand Island, Kearney, McCook, North Platte and Scottsbluff.

    Senator Nelson understands the importance of connecting our rural communities in Nebraska with larger cities nationwide and is working to ensure that the EAS program is not repealed. His efforts to maintain the program were welcomed by officials in western Nebraska.

    “As the mayor and lifetime resident of Chadron I believe it is essential to continue support for EAS,” John Chizek wrote to Nelson. “As a community we are active in the recruitment of new business. I firmly believe we have a unique atmosphere here to offer the businesses looking to move or expand. Our county was recently identified as the poorest in the State and any limitations place on us by reducing support will only hinder our hopes of growth. Our passenger loadings have remained stable and the removal of support for this service will only further restrict our opportunities.”

    Dave Glenn, CEO of Pathology Services in North Platte, recently thanked Sen. Nelson for working to preserve EAS funding. Losing it, he said, for airports like North Platte would be “disastrous.”

    “Our hospital recently started a medical helicopter service, the Union Pacific, Gerald Gentleman Power Plant, and many small, local, business like ours rely on having a well-maintained and safe airport,” Glenn said. “Pathology Services, P.C. serves 18 hospitals and over 50 clinics in Central and Western Nebraska, Northwest Kansas, and Northeast Colorado. To provide the Medicare required pathologist services, we rely on using our general aviation plane based at LBF (North Platte). We also rely on the commercial air service to allow us to send time-critical specimens to esoteric laboratories. Without EAS funding our business and the health of our citizens would be negatively impacted.”

    Darwin Skelton, Airport Director of the Western Nebraska Regional Airport in Scottsbluff also wrote this week to Nelson: “Essential Air Service is very important to Western Nebraska Regional Airport and Western Nebraska as a whole, without this funding we would not have commercial air service to our community. We have many businesses in this community that use this airport (ie Aurora Loan Service, Vertex, Regional West Medical Center, Twin City Development, just to name a few).

    “Small, more rural markets need air service to grow and maintain connections with larger hubs, doing away with Essential Air Service would be saying to rural America that they are not valued as an important part of air service in the United States. We value our time and the convenience that commercial air service offers. This is what Essential Air Service brings to our community,” Skelton concluded.

    Essential Air Service was established after the 1978 deregulation of the airline industry and has grown into a vital program connecting Americans living in rural communities with the rest of the world. The Senators said that air service is critical to a wide range of businesses and industries, and the loss of this vital lifeline would not only greatly inconvenience travelers, but would derail economic development efforts — businesses could close and tourists would choose other destinations.

    The following is the text of the letter sent by Nelson, Begich, Manchin and Casey:

    February 2, 2011

    Dear Senator McCain:

    We are writing to express our opposition to your amendment to the FAA Reauthorization bill repealing the Essential Air Service (EAS) program. As it is currently drafted, we will not support your amendment, and will be calling upon other Senators representing communities that benefit from the EAS program to oppose it as well.

    As you know, the Essential Air Service was established after the 1978 deregulation of the airline industry and has grown into a vital, non-controversial, program that connects Americans living in rural communities with the rest of the world. According to May 2010 data, there are 109 airports in the contiguous 48 states, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, as well as 45 in Alaska, receiving subsidized service.

    Eliminating the Program will have a devastating impact on the economies of rural communities. At a moment when the nation’s economic recovery is starting to gain momentum, it makes little sense to cut off these Americans simply because of where they live. And at a time when jobs are already so hard to come by in our rural communities, it makes even less sense to enact cuts that will only make the problem worse.

    Over the years Congress and the Department of Transportation have worked to streamline the EAS program to increase its efficiency, mostly by eliminating subsidy support for communities that are within a reasonable driving distance of a major hub airport. The FAA Reauthorization bill currently being debated by the Senate proposes a number of additional improvements, such as allowing new financial incentives for EAS carriers to encourage better service; allowing longer-term EAS contracts if such an arrangement is in the public interest; allowing incentives for large airlines to code-share on service to small communities; and requiring large airlines to code-share on EAS flights in up to 10 communities.

    Because we strongly believe in this program and understand the fiscal challenges facing our nation, we would welcome the opportunity to discuss ways to improve EAS. We look forward to your response.

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