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Flying through turbulence
February 25, 2011
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  • By Ledyard King

    WASHINGTON – The federal program that subsidizes airline service for rural communities appears to have largely escaped the budget turbulence that threatened to kill it this year, but its long-term survival still faces much uncertainty.

    The immediate forecast for Essential Air Service looks better after last week’s Senate rejection of a proposal by Arizona Republican John McCain to scrap the 33-year-old program as part of the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration.

    And despite calls by conservatives to do away with EAS and its $200 million yearly cost in an effort to reduce the federal debt, the 2011 spending bill that the House passed last week spared the subsidies. That’s despite about $61 billion in cuts to other government programs.

    “It’s called ‘Essential’ (Air Service) for a reason. … The program has been viable to not only individual communities and airports but to the global transportation network,” said Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association, which counts EAS carriers among its members. “Congress continues to recognize that. And I think the Senate vote on the McCain amendment was proof positive of that.”

    But EAS still is in for a bumpy ride. While the Senate was rejecting the McCain proposal, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last week approved its version of an FAA reauthorization bill that phases out the subsidy program by 2014. That measure could hit the House floor next month, though it still would have to be reconciled with the Senate version.

    The EAS program serves 154 communities in 35 states and Puerto Rico. Excluding Alaska, which has the most communities served, subsidized flights carried more than 1.1 million passengers in 2009, the latest figures available from the Department of Transportation. Last year, the per-passenger subsidy ranged from $9.21 for Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., to $5,223 for Ely, Nev., according to DOT figures.

    Many of the towns and small cities tout air service as a selling point to prospective businesses. Losing that could have an equally harmful effect with minuscule benefit – if any – to taxpayers, Cohen and other backers say.

    “Cutting EAS would be a huge false savings because of the devastation to these communities and the people and businesses that are in them,” he said. “You’d be paying … a lot more in unemployment benefits and (would leave them with) no access to health care and no access to virtually anything because of this.”|head

    Source: ARGUS LEADER
    Date: 2011-02-25