When President Donald Trump released his budget blueprint this month, the prospect of privatizing the country’s air traffic control system dominated conversation in the aviation industry.
The long-held goal by most major airlines to reform the system has struggled for years to get congressional approval but gained momentum with the president’s putative backing.
Beyond the headlines, two other aviation-related items tucked in different sections of the budget proposal promise to be felt by fliers in big cities and rural communities alike if approved.
The first is proposed cuts that would eliminate funding for the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes routes into small communities that might not otherwise have commercial service.
The second would raise fees to help pay for increased airport security, a cost that would be passed on to passengers and could make flying more expensive.
Unlike air traffic control reform, where the battle lines are clearly drawn between supporters and opponents, discussions on the other two proposals are just beginning.
Here’s a look at where things stand on the two issues and what Trump’s proposed changes would mean.
Rural air service
The Essential Air Service program was born in the late-1970s period of airline deregulation, promising to continue a minimum level of service to small community airports that previously had commercial flights when the industry was controlled more strictly by the government.
Today the program provides nearly $300 million in funding to 112 airports in the lower 48 states and 61 more in Alaska. That includes the South Texas city of Victoria, which is receiving annual funding worth $2.7 million, according to a Department of Transportation report in February.
The flights are typically flown on small regional jets or even turboprops, with as few as nine seats and as many as 50, that connect to larger airport hubs.
Trump’s budget blueprint would reduce funding for the program to zero, effectively ending the government’s participation in subsidizing these small routes. The administration estimates the move would save $175 million.
“EAS flights are not full and have high subsidy costs per passenger,” the budget document reads. “Several EAS-eligible communities are relatively close to major airports, and communities that have EAS could be served by other existing modes of transportation.”
It follows previous attempts by Republican administrations including George W. Bush’s to reduce or eliminate funding for the program. Some conservative groups argue that state or local governments should make up the difference if the service is truly critical to a community.
The proposal has raised concerns among rural airport operators, who fear the loss of funding could hurt their access to larger hubs, said Selena Shilad, executive director of Aviation Across America, which represents rural airports and general aviation interests.
Shilad said the commercial service plays an important role in keeping rural airports afloat, helping keep local economies connected to larger markets and enabling other aviation services such as medical transport.
“Eliminating the Essential Air Service … would directly harm small and rural communities that depend on local airports and aviation for business, agriculture and a host of critical services, including medical care, disaster relief, and law enforcement,” Shilad said in a statement.
So far, the major airline industry group Airlines for America hasn’t taken a position on the proposal. A spokesman for the group said individual carriers decide whether to participate in the program.
Airlines for America does have a lot to say about proposals to raise the passenger security fee, which sits at $5.60 per one-way trip and is used to help fund the Transportation Security Administration.
Trump’s budget calls for increasing the fee to recover 75 percent of TSA’s aviation security operations “to ensure that the cost of government services is not subsidized by taxpayers who do not directly benefit from those programs.”
Sharon Pinkerton, Airlines for America’s senior vice president for legislative and regulatory policy, pointed out that more than $1 billion in funding generated by the fee is being diverted toward federal deficit reduction. Pinkerton said that should end before the administration talks about increasing the fee.
It “seems backwards. I think the first thing Congress and the administration have to do is return that money to TSA,” she said. “Obviously the amount of the fee increase was not specified in the budget document. We think any amount is too much when you’re diverting $1.3 billion away.”
Pinkerton said that the need to increase the fee hasn’t been demonstrated and that other measures — such as increased PreCheck enrollment and more K9 teams at airports — can keep waits down.
“We think that the system we have in place now should be able to realize those efficiencies and ensure passenger wait times are not excessive,” she said.