A federal program that provides millions of dollars to subsidize flights to remote Alaska villages and towns is under fire in D.C.
Sen. Mark Begich and three other Democratic senators recently sent this letter to Sen. John McCain, who has proposed amending an FAA authorization bill to cut funding for the Essential Air Service program.
The program uses federal money to lower commercial air-travel costs to airports where it might otherwise be too expensive to fly. That includes 44 communities in Alaska, according to the Department of Transportation.
The program sends more than $12 million in subsidies to Alaska air carriers each year, Begich said.
Just how much does each Alaska community get? Click here for a Department of Transportation list, with May 2010 rates.
Flights for the Southeast village of Yakutat are receiving about $2.7 million, it says. That amounts to about $4,300 per person in a community of 628 people.
“Eliminating EAS means driving up the price of air transportation which inflates the cost of milk, toilet paper, diapers and everything Sen. McCain’s constituents can find in a box store or shopping mall," Begich said in prepared statement.
UPDATE: I spoke briefly with Michael Morgan, director of operations for Fairbanks-based Warbelow's Air Ventures, which is receiving more than $575,000 from the program to provide regular flights to five communities.
Small towns and villages were promised they would not lose service when airline service was deregulated, he said. Under the subsidy, a one-way ticket from Circle to Fairbanks is about $99, he said.
It'll be "significantly" more if the program disappears, Morgan said. "The net result will be less frequent service and higher ticket prices."
Reporter Erika Bolstad has more from D.C.:
Both Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young also are expected to vigorously oppose any cuts to the service, even in the face of the anti-spending mood in Congress.
"It is how we provide for a level of commerce in some very remote areas, and it is a level of assistance that quite honestly allows our families to be sustainable in areas where fuel costs are through the roof, where food costs are out of sight and where otherwise it is almost impossible to be able to afford to live there," Murkowski told Gannett News Service last week.
Neither Young nor Murkowski was available Thursday. However, Young has also been a supported of the service. As recently as July, he touted in a press release the $196 million he landed in a transportation bill for Essential Air Service routes in Alaska.
“This money is going to help Alaskans travel easier and safer and will create new Alaskan jobs,” he said at the time.
Former Sen. Ted Stevens was a long-time defender of the subsidies, and in 2008 criticized proposed cuts to the service in President George W. Bush’s final budget.
Finally, here's a more big-picture take today from The AP:
Rural air subsidies test resolve to cut spending
By JOAN LOWY
WASHINGTON — A senator who is a key figure in aviation issues vowed Thursday to fight off an attempt to eliminate a program that subsidizes air service to small airports, often in remote communities.
The proposal is shaping up as an early test in the new Congress of conservatives' zeal for shrinking the federal government.
Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller said the proposal to eliminate the $200 million essential air service program is a "nonstarter." He is the chief sponsor of a bill to authorize Federal Aviation Administration programs for the next two years that opponents are trying to amend to eliminate the air service subsidies.
"It makes no sense to choke off rural residents' access to air travel and their connection to jobs and family," the West Virginia Democrat said in a statement. "I will fight tooth and nail against any proposal to eliminate or cut funding for this critical program."
The program pays airlines to provide scheduled service to about 150 communities, from Muscle Shoals, Ala., to Pelican, Alaska. There are five airports in West Virginia with subsidized service.
"I think it will be a test of the willingness to cut spending," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who proposed the amendment.
In the House, the Republican Study Committee — a group of conservative lawmakers — has also proposed killing the program.
But several conservative senators from rural states declined to discuss McCain's amendment when approached by The Associated Press.
"I'll have to see it first. I haven't seen the amendment," said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. Two communities in Wyoming — Laramie and Worland — receive subsidized service, according to the Transportation Department.
"I just don't know about that," echoed Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Three communities in Utah — Moab, Vernal and Cedar City — receive subsidized service
The program was created to ensure that less-profitable routes to small airports wouldn't be eliminated when airline service was deregulated in 1978. Subsidies per airline passenger as of June 1, 2010, ranged as high as $5,223 in Ely, Nev., to as low as $9.21 in Thief River Falls, Minn., according to Transportation Department data for the lower 48 states.
But critics say the airports often serve too few people to merit the amount of money spent in subsidies. Urban growth over the past three decades has also placed transportation alternatives — other airports, trains and bus service — within a reasonable distance of some communities receiving subsidies.
Studies show that in a lot of those communities people drive to larger airports to get better service at a lower cost than they can get at the smaller airport, even with subsidized air service, said Severin Borenstein, a University of California-Berkeley business professor who is an expert on airline competition.
"Some communities can make a credible claim they need the service, particularly in Alaska, but I think those are a relatively small part of the program," he said.
A 2009 Government Accountability report said demographic shifts were also depopulating some of the communities served by program. As a result, the reports said, that on average just over a third of the seats were filled on subsidized flights. For commercial flights nationwide, the average was about 80 percent.
The program has been remarkably resilient, partly due to the protection it receives from lawmakers from rural states and districts. It has been proposed for cuts or elimination many times over the years, but continues to grow.
"It's exactly in the political sweet spot," Borenstein said. Lawmakers don't feel it's worth upsetting the few people the program serves to achieve what amounts to a modest savings in federal budget terms, he said.
Supporters say the small airports and their air service are important to the communities' ability to attract investment and jobs. The Obama administration sought an increase in the program last year.
Four Democratic senators — Mark Begich of Alaska, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — sent a letter to McCain Thursday urging him to give up his attempt to kill the program.
"Eliminating the program will have a devastating impact on the economies of rural communities," their letter says.
"At a moment when the nation's economic recovery is starting to gain momentum, it makes little sense to reduce personal and business travel volume by cutting off residents of rural areas," the letter says.
The pending aviation bill would give the Transportation Department more flexibility in structuring contracts with airlines to improve the air subsidies program. It would also let the Transportation Department adjust contracts to take into account rising fuel costs.
|20110201 EAS_Letter_McCain.pdf||457.79 KB|