By Joan Lowy, Associated Press
February 17, 2011
WASHINGTON – Subsidies for air service to small airports would be almost eliminated and spending on aviation programs scaled back under a bill approved Wednesday by a House committee.
The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted 34-25, mostly along party lines, for a Republican-written bill that establishes and renews Federal Aviation Administration programs through Sept. 30, 2014.
The bill would eliminate most of the $200 million Essential Air Service program, which pays airlines to provide scheduled service to 155 communities. The bill would phase out the program in the lower 48 states by 2013.
After that, only subsidies for service to airports in Alaska would be continued.
In South Dakota, two communities benefit from EAS money. Great Lakes Airlines receives $1.7 million a year in federal subsidies to fly into Huron, while Mesaba Airlines receives $1.3 million to serve Watertown, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Brookings had service through the program until it was discontinued partially because of low passenger volumes.
In the Senate, Arizona Republican John McCain has proposed totally eliminating the program, calling it a test of lawmakers’ commitment to cut government spending.
A 2009 Government Accountability report said demographic shifts were decreasing the population of some communities served by the program. The report said that on average just more than a third of the seats were filled on subsidized flights. For commercial flights nationwide, the average was 80 percent.
Lawmakers from rural districts say airline service is critical to rural communities in attracting and retaining businesses that generate jobs.
The subsidy program “is a vital lifeline between rural communities and the global network of commerce,” Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the committee’s top Democrat, said. “Small and rural communities have grown up around (the program), which directly supports local jobs.”
The bill also would roll back annual FAA spending to $14.7 billion for each of the next three years – the same level as 2008 – in keeping with GOP promises to shrink government.
Democrats predict the spending decreases will lead to cutbacks and cancellations in the air traffic modernization program. FAA has estimated the program will cost the government as much as $22 billion through 2025. Airlines would have to spend as much as $20 billion more to install equipment in their planes.