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Funding for Rural Airports in Question
April 14, 2011
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  • By Taylor Kuykendall

    April 7, 2011

    Two versions of a bill reauthorizing funds for the Federal Airport Authority are set to be reconciled by a joint committee of the U.S. Congress. One difference between the two bills is funding that could heavily affect West Virginia airports.

    The U.S. House-passed version of the reauthorization of the FAA does not include funding for Essential Air Service. EAS provides air service to communities that, without subsidies, would not be able provide air service.

    Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., blasted what he labeled as an effort that would decrease air safety, destroy jobs and diminish aviation and economic options for rural communities.

    “‘Do more with less’: that is how the Republicans think the FAA will operate under this bill,” Rahall said in a release following passage of the bill. “When we are talking about investing in air traffic control modernization, or regulating safety, or hiring a sufficient number of safety inspectors, there is no such thing as doing more with less. Under this bill, the FAA will have to do less with less, and you would have to be asleep at the controls not to see that.”

    Eleven House Republicans voted against the FAA Reauthorization and Reform bill, including West Virginia Rep. David McKinley.

    Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., voted in support of the bill, which makes several rule changes to the FAA, including the implementation of a GPS-based air traffic control system that is predicted to result in fewer traffic delays.

    The EAS program was formed as a part of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, and currently, subsidies are distributed throughout more than 100 communities nationwide.

    At the Raleigh County Airport, all commercial flights depend on EAS funding, said airport manager Tom Cochran.

    “It certainly would be devastating to our community to lose that service that we have,” Cochran said. “It means so much to the public, as well as the economic development opportunities that come from it.”

    In Beckley, Cochran said they are monitoring the actions of the House closely, as the possibility of losing EAS funding dangles in limbo between the two houses of Congress. He said the future development of the community depends on the vital link to the world provided by air service.

    “We are a rural city that has a one-hour connection to our nation’s capital,” Cochran said. “This is important for the business traveler as well as the leisure traveler.”

    From D.C., he said, patrons of the local airport can connect to anywhere in the world.

    Cochran said about $2.3 million annually comes to the Beckley airport from EAS funding. In addition to losing service, Cochran said, jobs are on the line.

    “There’s job losses that are tied to this,” Cochran said. “Employees at the airlines, TSA folks, law enforcement… It’s just complete devastation to the whole system should that go away.”

    Rahall said he too was concerned about potential job losses if the EAS program was permanently trimmed from the budget.

    “One thing we should all be honest about right now – this is not a jobs bill. You cannot cut funding so dramatically without destroying tens of thousands of jobs – federal jobs, state jobs, local jobs, public- and private- sector jobs,” Rahall said. “In addition to costing jobs, the bill’s funding cuts would cause delays to air traffic control modernization, meaning more delayed flights, a reduction of FAA’s safety workforce and delays to FAA safety rules.”

    West Virginia Senators Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, both Democrats, have expressed support of the EAS.

    Rockefeller, chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportion, said he is confident the House and Senate versions of the bill will be reconciled and he will be closely focusing on rural air service.

    “I have seen time and again how important the Essential Air Service program is to the economic development of West Virginia’s communities. The program attracts businesses, supports jobs, and provides a vital connection to the global marketplace. It doesn’t make sense to end a program that creates so much value in rural residents’ lives. This program gives rural communities’ access to opportunities that would not otherwise exist – whether that’s an opportunity for a job, or a visit from family or a friend.”

    Manchin said that for many southern West Virginia communities, air travel is on a short list of transportation options.

    “Eliminating all of the funding for this program will jeopardize existing jobs, not to mention prevent new businesses from setting up shop,” Manchin said. “Rather than simply eliminating a program that is working for so many, we should work together on common-sense ideas to make improvements. I subscribe to efficiencies but not to slaughter.”

    Date: 2011-04-07