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Federal legislation could ground funding for Cortez airport
February 11, 2011
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  • By Reid Wright

    February 9, 2011

    An old African proverb states that when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.

    U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., addressed the Senate on Monday, advocating for a bill to cut the federal Essential Air Service program, which provides approximately $200 million in federal subsidies to airlines that provide services to rural airports like the Cortez Municipal Airport.

    McCain argued the program is unnecessary, has outlived its purpose and promotes needless government spending.

    In turn, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., called for support for a reauthorization bill to continue the Federal Aviation Administration Essential Service Program, as well as including measures to invest in the modernization of air traffic control systems and other capital improvements to rural airports.

    “This bill will help make air travel more reliable and ensure that Colorado’s airports, big and small, continue to be economic engines for our state and communities,” Bennet said in a prepared statement released Monday. “The New FAA bill will help ease stress for travelers by bringing our badly outdated air traffic control system up to date. While security and safety remains a top priority, this bill will allow for more flights, fewer delays and greater opportunity for economic growth.”

    The Essential Air Service program has come under fire by legislators repeatedly in the past but has managed to come out unscathed.

    The program currently subsidizes Great Lakes Airlines to a tune of $1,847,657 per year to provide service to Cortez.

    Great Lakes Airline officials could not be reached for comment regarding whether or not the airline will continue service to Cortez if the subsidy is cut.

    Russ Machen, manager of the Cortez airport, said the local airport depends on Great Lakes for 70 percent of the airport’s revenues. The airline directly funds the airport through landing fees, passenger ticket tax, fuel sales and building rent. Indirectly, the airline supports car rentals and Transportation Safety Administration rent.

    “Without the airline, we literally would have to wrap airport operations into another department and rely on (city of Cortez) General Fund support,” Machen wrote in an e-mail to City Manager Jay Harrington. “Right now, we make a small profit each year that enables us to meet our FAA and state grant obligations. Development here would come to a crawl, if not a halt, due to funding availability.”

    The airport recently completed a $1.9 million runway shoulder improvement project with federal, state and local funds.

    Harrington said the end of airline service to Cortez would not only impact the airport but also the entire community.

    “Air service has been shown to be important to support local economies of rural communities throughout the state, particularly for a community like Cortez,” Harrington said. “Having air service to support the existing local businesses as well as the tourism economy is a major issue for folks who may be looking at relocating a business here, too.”

    Cortez Mayor Dan Porter asked U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, about the issue at a town hall meeting hosted by the Congressman on Saturday at the Cortez Recreation Center.

    “There’s going to be a lot of discussion going on,” Tipton said. “I don’t want to delude anybody. As as a community, we may have to step up somehow. I think we need to be aware that everybody’s ox is going to get gored some in this process.”

    The Essential Service Program was created in 1978 after the deregulation of airline service. It subsidies as much as $5,223 per passenger in Ely, Nev., to as little as $9.21 per passenger in Thief River Falls, Minn.

    Cortez Municipal Airport had 14,134 passengers who enplaned or deplaned in 2010, Machen said.

    “Right now, the airport is self-sufficient in the city’s budget,” Harrington said. “If the essential air service went away, it would be a challenge for the city to keep the airport.”

    The Associated Press contributed to this report.

    Date: 2011-02-09