Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Eliminating Essential Air Service would have a big impact in Michigan, second to Alaska in subsidies

One of the programs that would be eliminated under President Trump's proposed budget is Essential Air Service, "which last year subsidized commercial flights to 173 rural airports at a cost of about $283 million," Melissa Nann Burke reports for The Detroit News. Michigan, which Trump carried in the November election, ranks second behind Alaska in most communities supported by the program. The state would lose federal subsidies that provide service to nine of its most isolated airports. Last year in Michigan subsidies per passenger ranged from $23 to $366.

"Advocates contend that discontinuing the subsidies could harm tourism and business development in northern Michigan, where the nine airports are located, including five in the Upper Peninsula," Burke writes. "The Trump administration says the program wastes taxpayer dollars on mostly empty flights to places that are within driving distance of larger airports. Other critics of the Essential Air Service say fears about cutting off rural communities from the rest of the world are overblown." The end of the program would not mean closure of airports, regional airport directors say, because they have many corporate and general-aviation users.

Congress created the program in the 1970s to ensure air service to small communities would continue. "The program is funded in part by overflight fees—$108 million last year—paid to the federal government by foreign aircraft that fly through U.S. airspace," Burke reports. "The remainder comes from discretionary appropriations by Congress, which set aside $175 million last fiscal year. Lawmakers have since narrowed the program’s scope, but spending has increased more than 132 percent since 2008, adjusting for inflation, in part because of rising fuel costs, according to a March report by the Congressional Research Service."

The service is especially important in states like Alaska, where in some cases there are no roads "to connect people to a larger hub where they can get medical care, prescriptions and groceries, air travel is a part of everyday life," Annie Zak reports for Alaska Dispatch News. The Alaska Department of Transportation said about 82 percent of the state's communities are not connected to the road system. John Binder, deputy state transportation commissioner for aviation, told Zak that a total of 230 Alaska communities are eligible for the program, though not all participate.

Alaska gets about $21 million in federal subsidies from the program, Burke writes. "Without the Essential Air Service program, carriers speculate that ticket prices might go up and service frequency might go down, if regular flight service remains in such remote hamlets at all."

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