Air service as an essential tool for local business and jobs was a repeated message Wednesday during a forum at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport hosted by Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn.
Nolan said he was seeking feedback from communities served by the Essential Air Service (EAS) program. In 2014, the EAS program supported 160 airports in the nation with a fund of $250 million. About $200 million for the program comes from federal taxes on airline tickets, aviation fuel and user fees and $50 million is from foreign air carrier fees to use the American air traffic control system.
“Now we have a group in Congress who want to do away with Essential Air Service offered amendments on the floor of the House,” Nolan said. “They call it devolvement. They don’t want any funding coming from those airline tickets or any other source from the federal government not just for Essential Air Services but for roads and bridges, airports and a whole variety of things.”
Critics have called the EAS a waste of money serving a small amount of people who have other travel options at larger airports even if it means driving some distance to get there.
The national Essential Air Service program traces its roots back to 1978 during the deregulation of the airline industry. The EAS was designed to make sure more rural areas with small communities and regional centers retained access to air service. Before deregulation, the federal government tightly controlled airline routes and fares, which were controlled so small communities had inexpensive airfare.
Jeff Wig, Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport manager, can vividly remember a sign at Republic Airlines in 1980 advertising a round-trip price of $27 from Brainerd to the Twin Cities. The airline deregulation act and a dramatic increase in the price of jet fuel put a squeeze on airlines and on service to small markets. The EAS program helped small communities and provided subsidies for air carriers to serve those markets. Brainerd was a profitable spot for airlines, Wig said, and thus it did not get an air subsidy during most of that time.
Things changed on 9/11.
Security costs and drastic industry changes followed. The Mesaba airline went bankrupt and was absorbed. In 2012, Delta announced its subsidiary would cease air service in Brainerd.
“That was a very, very critical juncture for us,” Wig said. “… That was a tough go to get a good quality airline to come in and serve our market. Some of the smaller airlines that were interested would have drastically reduced our service.”
But, Wig said, at the same time, Brainerd applied for and received a EAS subsidy, which helped attract a high-quality carrier in SkyWest Airlines. Wig said it was a major turning point here, bringing in 50-passenger jets the airport wasn’t able to attract before. The annual airline subsidy is now $1,671,602 or $64 per passenger. SkyWest provides 12 inbound and 12 outbound flights per week.
The Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport is now growing, Wig said, with 26,000 passengers in and out of the airport a little more than two years ago to 35,000 expected this year. Wig credits a lot of the growth to SkyWest Airlines and its record here. The EAS fund enables the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport and others to provide the services.
“I certainly urge Congress to continue to support this program, which provides such a critical link to so many in the country,” Wig said.
Nolan heard from business leaders from tourism, service and manufacturing industries in the community, frequent fliers and local government officials. For Madden’s Resort on Gull Lake the air service is crucial for corporate clients as well as bringing in guest speakers for events. Others noted their business is global with customers coming here from multiple international locations. All spoke of the economic importance of the airport and flight service to the community here.
Mike Higgins, who recently purchased the former Wausau Paper mill in Brainerd, said he’s had customers come from Vietnam and China, as well as across the nation. He said everyone knows Brainerd more than the Twin Cities.
“The airport is huge for me moving forward,” Higgins said, adding it was a scary thought to lose air service.
Jeff Czeczok, airport commission member, pointed to the investment in the airport for the runways to serve commercial flights. That investment in infrastructure would be wasted if the EAS wasn’t there to help ensure commercial air service, Czeczok said. Nolan said he’d be fighting to keep the service.
Nolan, who took notes as he listened to speakers, said he was hopeful the program has bipartisan support to continue. Nolan had previous stops for essential air service forums in International Falls, Hibbing and has another planned Friday in Bemidji.