By Joseph Morton
February 4, 2011
WASHINGTON – Great Lakes Airlines offers flights twice each weekday to Denver from McCook Ben Nelson Regional Airport, but fewer than six passengers per day make the hop.
Each ticket holder on the 19-seat Beech turboprop enjoys the benefit of a round-trip federal subsidy in the neighborhood of $1,000, thanks to the Essential Air Service program. That program supports service at more than 150 rural airports nationwide, including seven in Nebraska and three in Iowa.
Taxpayer groups and deficit hawks on Capitol Hill have targeted the rural air subsidies repeatedly over the years, yet the program’s annual funding recently reached a new high of $200 million. Lawmakers representing states that rely on the program have fought for it – even leaders who have called for significant cuts to federal spending.
The latest round of legislative wrangling over the program broke out this week, with some urging that it be eliminated.
Local officials say that without the subsidies, they would lose a service that spurs economic development necessary to keep their communities viable.
But even some participants see the need for change. More than $2.2 million in annual federal subsidies currently support flights to Denver from Central Nebraska Regional Airport in Grand Island. In June, those flights will be replaced by new service to Dallas.
Mike Olson, the airport’s executive director, said Grand Island is trying to reach a point where it no longer needs the subsidies, which were intended as a bridge for communities that lost service in the wake of government deregulation 30 years ago.
Round-trip per-passenger subsidies of $1,000 or more may make sense for incredibly remote spots in Alaska, he said, but not when they’re supporting service to airports such as McCook, which is an hour from subsidized service in North Platte.
“I’m shaking my head saying ‘This is ridiculous. This is absolutely ludicrous that we’re spending that kind of money,'” Olson said. “(I’m) an airport director at an EAS airport, but I’m a taxpayer too and I’m saying this is not good. … It’s a waste of fuel, a waste of a lot of taxpayer dollars to fly one or two people, or three people, at most a handful a day.”
He said federal officials could save money subsidizing a shuttle service to North Platte.
Kurt Fritsch, McCook city manager, defended his airport’s subsidies, saying that air service was a factor in Valmont Industries’ decision to locate and keep a plant in McCook.
“It’s very important to the local economy, and it’s certainly a selling point if we’re going to save these communities out here, to have those types of connections,” Fritsch said.
He also said the federal per-passenger subsidy numbers are skewed a bit by the fact that McCook’s Essential Air Service airline, Great Lakes, cancels flights at times for weather or a lack of passengers.
“If they know there’s zero or even sometimes one or two (passengers), it’s not all the time, but if there are, they may go ahead and pass McCook up and not stop here … they’re only reimbursed for when they actually touch down,” Fritsch said.
The U.S. Senate this week has been considering Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization legislation that would cement the Essential Air Service’s authorized funding at its 2010 level: $200 million. The year before, the program received $136.2 million.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wants to go the other way: He announced a proposal to eliminate the subsidies altogether. On the House side, the conservative Republican Study Committee also proposed ending the program.
McCain told The World-Herald his proposal represents the “first chance to see whether we’re serious about cutting spending.”
He said he understands the argument that the program is important for economic development.
“We’re having to make tough decisions,” he said. “A lot of things have merit, but we really just can’t afford them.”
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and three other Senate Democrats – from Alaska, Pennsylvania and West Virginia – quickly rushed to the defense of the program. In a letter to McCain this week they wrote that eliminating the program would devastate 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,” the senators wrote. “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.”
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said the recent increase in authorized funding for the program looks “too hefty in these times,” but he also said getting rid of the program altogether would do little to help the deficit but would hurt the communities in question.
“You could totally eliminate this and this is barely a rounding error, but to these small communities, it’s their lifeblood,” Johanns said. “They’re either going to survive or not survive depending upon this very important program.”
Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., supports keeping the program. All of Nebraska’s subsidized service airports are in his district.
The Nebraska lawmaker with the most urban constituency, Republican Rep. Lee Terry, said the program could be due for some cuts, but that he still couldn’t see eliminating it altogether.
“For big rural states, you do need someplace that people can fly out of without driving eight hours to get to an airport,” said Terry, who represents Omaha and its suburbs.
Sandra Powell is the city manager in Chadron, which has the benefit of EAS subsidies. Powell said local officials there use the air service to travel to conferences and that businesses will locate places only where they can get in and out by air.
“We also have a fairly sophisticated citizenry that travels,” she said. “Those type of people like to relocate, retire, where they know that they’re still connected with the world.”