Budget cuts may ground small-town flights

WASHINGTON – Essential Air Service, the federal program that pays airlines to serve more than 150 remote communities, including two in South Dakota, once again is facing cancellation.

Past efforts to ground EAS have come from presidents who proposed scaling back or eliminating the program as part of an attempt to cut what they see as wasteful federal spending. Those efforts have been rebuffed by lawmakers who represent rural America and view air service to their constituents as an absolute necessity.

But the proposal this time is coming from members of Congress, many from rural areas, who ran on a promise to cut government spending and rein in the soaring national debt. And even those who have defended EAS in the past say that in this fiscal climate, everything that reduces the size of government must be considered.

“I’ve always supported EAS, but there should be nothing sacrosanct,” said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. “Everything should be on the table as far as discretionary domestic spending is concerned.”

The program serves 154 communities in 35 states and Puerto Rico. Great Lakes Airlines receives about $1.7 million per 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.

Excluding Alaska, which has the most communities served, subsidized flights carried more than 1.1 million passengers in 2009, the latest figures available from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Last year, the per-passenger subsidy ranged from $9.21 for Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., to $5,223 for Ely, Nev., according to DOT figures.

The annual cost of the program is about $200 million. The Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative House members, is proposing to cut the program by $150 million, though it’s not clear how many communities – if any – would be spared. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has proposed an amendment to an aviation bill pending before the Senate to eliminate the program.

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