By Nicholas L. Dean
February 17, 2011
MAYVILLE – A move to cut funding from small airports, such as the one in Jamestown, made some headway in Washington on Wednesday, passing a House committee.
As reported by The Associated Press, the Republican-authored bill would eliminate most of the $200 million of the Essential Air Service program.
Created in the late 1970s, when the airline service was deregulated, the EAS program ensured that less-profitable routes to small, rural airports wouldn’t be eliminated. The program pays airlines to provide scheduled service to 155 communities.
Though concerned that the county could possibly lose funding, Dave Sanctuary, airports manager, said Wednesday that such proposals are not new.
In fact, ever since the program was first created, Sanctuary said, there have been attempts to curtail the program as well as to eliminate it outright.
“There have been a number of congressman and senators over the years that have been strongly opposed to the EAS program,” Sanctuary said. “Every time this has come up in the past, in either the House or the Senate, it has been defeated either at the committee level or on the floor in open vote. It has never passed.”
In response to the bill, which was proposed by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand subsequently called for funding to be increased. According to reports, a total of six airports in the state depend on the EAS program. The Chautauqua County Airport receives a total of $1,350,803 in funding, though Gillibrand has called for that amount to be increased to a total of $2,120,760.
“Am I concerned?” Sanctuary asked. “Well, of course. I’m concerned because it’s essential for Chautauqua County to be able to have this service. Do I think it’s going to pass the Senate? I doubt it. I truly doubt it. Sen. (Charles) Schumer is very, very strong on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and he is opposed to any change. Where will it go? I don’t know. I don’t know how much of this is political posturing.”
Though essential to the continuation of air service locally, a loss of the funding wouldn’t mean the airport in Jamestown would have to close.
The federal government can’t just pull the plug on contracts it has with air service providers, Sanctuary explained. In Jamestown, the county airport has a contract through September of 2012.
Of the nearly 19,000 passengers that passed through the Jamestown airport last year, only about 4,000 were on airlines, according to Sanctuary. The rest, he explained, were through charter services and corporate aviation, which accounts for the bulk of activity at the Chautauqua County Airport in Jamestown.
Additionally, county lawmakers announced last year that the airport can’t actually be shut down for at least another two decades- as the county has accepted federal funds throughout the years.
AIRPORT TASK FORCE
The legislature’s new Airport Task Force has met twice now since forming.
At the Monday meeting of the Public Facilities Committee, Majority Leader Larry Barmore, R-Gerry, said members had met, divided up the workload and are now each independently researching issues.
The committee members have also received information from Dave Sanctuary and have interviewed officials from other airports, but are “nowhere close to being finished,” Barmore said.
“We’re finding out so far that Chautauqua County is spending considerably more county money than any other county airports, and there’s reasons for it,” Barmore told fellow committee members.
Also on the new task force is Chuck Nazzaro, D-Jamestown, who added that the committee is asking a lot of questions and “making good progress.”
In conversation with The Post-Journal on Wednesday, Sanctuary reiterated that the purpose of the new task force is not to close the airports.
“The purpose of the legislature’s newly-appointed committee is to look into ideas and alternatives that would allow us to maximize the utility value to bring new life to the airport,” Sanctuary said. “It’s to figure out if there is something that we have overlooked that we can do differently. Can we increase the revenues and decrease the local share tax dollars that are going to support the airport? That’s what the task force is looking at.”
The request for such a task force came several months back, at the start of the legislature’s budget review process. Legislators suggested that a task force should be created to evaluate what it will take and what it would mean for the county to privatize its two airports.
Along with such an airport task force, legislators have similarly suggested creating and continuing other ad hoc committees to look at various areas of the county – such as the landfill and County Home.