By James Oberstar and Jerry Costello
When Congress deregulated the domestic airline industry in 1978, it established the Essential Air Service (EAS) program to maintain a transportation and economic link between urban and rural America. The effects of deregulation on small communities were entirely foreseeable: Air service to small towns would diminish as the airlines shifted service to more profitable routes serving more densely populated areas. EAS guarantees that small or rural communities that were served by commercial airlines before deregulation would receive a minimal level of scheduled service.
While times have changed, this commitment to rural America remains a federal priority. The EAS program plays an important role in allowing small communities to participate in the nation’s economic growth and attract new business opportunities. Over the years, Congress has enacted restrictions to ensure that EAS service is provided only to communities that need it: It has eliminated subsidies where an airport is within 70 miles of a midsized or large hub or if the per-passenger subsidy would exceed $200.
Although some EAS communities are now within a two-hour drive of a large airport, mayors and economic development experts will tell you that reliable air service is critical for future economic development. The business atmosphere has become far more competitive, demanding and time-sensitive, and many communities have witnessed this transformation painfully – watching good-paying manufacturing jobs go overseas.
Corporations seeking to relocate or build new facilities will not choose areas without efficient, convenient access to commercial airline service. Adding a four-hour round-trip drive to a business trip is simply unacceptable in today’s fast-moving, global economy. Otherwise attractive rural communities will lose out to already-congested cities, as businesses focus solely on their bottom line.
The 9/11 attacks showed that a diverse transportation system is critical. Although airline deregulation has brought better service at lower prices to many areas, maintaining a truly nationwide air transportation system that protects small communities from losing access to efficient travel options remains a sound investment in America. The EAS program accomplishes all of these goals.
Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., is chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure; Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., chairs the Subcommittee on Aviation.
Source: USA TODAY