May. 15, 2011 By: John Flesher
IRONWOOD — A couple of times a month, Dr. Walter Beusse drives from his suburban Chicago home to Milwaukee to catch a flight to Ironwood, where he works in the emergency room of Aspirus Grand View Hospital.
It’s a long commute. But it will be much longer if Congress eliminates subsidies for airlines serving about 110 airports in rural communities.
Gogebic-Iron County Airport Manager Duane DuRay is convinced that abolishing the subsidies would doom passenger service. The western Upper Peninsula airport, which opened a $1.3-million terminal last fall, would be downgraded to general aviation status with reduced hours, he said.
“It’s a horrible way of trying to save money because in the end it’s going to cost money,” DuRay said. “It will just amplify the economic problems our community already has.”
The subsidies come through an Essential Air Service program established in 1978 when the government deregulated airlines, enabling them to drop lightly traveled routes that lose money. The $200-million program pays carriers to provide a minimum number of seats and trips from small airports to hub fields.
The program has long been criticized as wasteful spending and political pork. But with 35 of the lower 48 states having at least one participating airport, supporters have kept it alive.
But now, amid record budget deficits and intense pressure to cut spending, backers acknowledge the program is more vulnerable than ever. It would be phased out by October 2013 under an aviation bill that cleared the Republican-controlled House in April.
A competing measure approved by the majority-Democrat Senate would continue the subsidies but tighten eligibility criteria, disqualifying airports within 90 miles of a larger hub or those that average fewer than 10 passengers daily.
Beusse, 52, is among several part-timers who fly in regularly for spot duty at the 25-bed Ironwood hospital.
“It’s the only practical way to commute that distance,” he said. “When you have a big snowstorm, driving’s just impossible. And there are lots of snowstorms here.”
The possible end of commercial flights is one more worry for the hospital’s physician recruiter, Sheila Begalle.
“Recruiting doctors to a rural area is very difficult,” she said. “If they feel isolated, it’s a big strike against you.”
One new member of Congress, Rep. Dan Benishek of Iron River, illustrates the competing pressures for Republicans elected after pledging to downsize government. His sprawling northern Michigan district includes six of the state’s eight subsidized airports.
He voted for the aviation bill that would end the subsidies, saying it had “many important provisions.” Then Benishek promised to seek their restoration.
“I do not see air service in rural areas as unnecessary or reckless spending,” Benishek said.
Source: DETROIT FREE PRESS