Two years ago, the federal government came up with an idea to save money on rural airport subsidies without killing air service to small communities: Stop paying the airlines, and give the money directly to local governments instead.
Communities could use the cash as they pleased to enhance access to air service, even if that meant providing ground transportation to larger airports, officials reasoned.
No one applied.
The failure of the so-called Alternate Essential Air Service Program is one symptom of the federal government's sinking efforts to scale back or rewrite policies that protect commercial air service in Watertown and other small communities.
Federal officials say fundamental changes are necessary because the number of communities seeking flight subsidies is growing, putting a cost crunch on the Essential Air Service program. The rising cost of fuel adds to the budget worries, officials say.
Watertown International Airport near Dexter stands in the middle of the argument. It would lose about $585,000 in annual subsidies under a Federal Aviation Administration's proposal to eliminate subsidies for communities within 100 miles of a small hub airport.
Subsidies to Ogdensburg, Massena and Saranac Lake would continue, but the communities would have to cover some off the program's expenses themselves.
That proposal has appeared from time to time and has never gone far in Congress. But a recent Senate subcommittee hearing showed that even the less radical ideas that have passed Congress are wavering.
One of those is the alternate EAS block grant proposal. It gives communities "great flexibility," such as allowing them to use smaller planes but more frequent flights, or to provide on-demand air taxi service, said Michael W. Reynolds, acting assistant secretary for aviation at the federal Department of Transportation, at a hearing.
Telling senators that the program had attracted no applicants, Mr. Reynolds added, "I cannot tell you for sure why, but my guess is that part of it is that it is just human nature to resist change."
Mr. Reynolds added, "I do think that the communities have gotten very comfortable in knowing that they are guaranteed their two or three round trips a day no matter what."
Congress also approved a pilot program allowing up to 10 communities to receive two years' worth of EAS subsidies at once, in exchange for giving up all EAS subsidies for the next decade. No one has volunteered, Mr. Reynolds said.
The government -- and the north country -- have had more success with another grant, the Small Community Air Service Development Program. Massena International Airport received $400,000 through that program, which is limited to four or fewer locations per state.
Officials in Massena are using the funding to study ways to draw more carriers to the airport.
But that program is shrinking. Funding fell from $20 million in 2005 to $10 million this year. The number of applications for funding fell from 179 in 2002 to 75 this year, reported the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
The GAO outlined several ideas Congress could consider in revamping the programs. Among others, it could encourage the creation of regional airports in rural areas, the GAO said. But it cited Northern New York as an example of that idea's pitfalls.
In 2002, the GAO reported, the government paid Air Midwest Inc. $1.9 million to serve airports in Massena and Ogdensburg, where planes pick up passengers before going to Watertown and then Pittsburgh.
But an Air Midwest official told the GAO that the cost of serving Massena and Ogdensburg is relatively small compared to flying between Watertown and Pittsburgh, according to the report.
An industry group, the Regional Airline Association, urged Congress to reject proposals for cost sharing or eliminating subsidies for some airports that already receive them.
"The recommendation sets up a complicated reform that takes the 'air' out of Essential Air Service, telling residents of smaller communities that convenient, reliable air service is a luxury they can't have," said RAA Vice President of Legislative Affairs Faye Malarkey.
Ms. Malarkey urged lawmakers to approve $117 million for EAS in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, an increase over this year. Both houses of Congress appear headed toward that figure, but a final decision may not come until after the November elections. Rep. John M. McHugh, R-Pierrepont Manor, and other longtime allies led the call for the increase.
"This program, as the name implies, is essential to maintain the economic viability of our communities," said Brynn A. Barnett, spokeswoman for Mr. McHugh.
"Air service is a linchpin for economic progress and EAS has been the lifeline for many communities upstate, like Watertown, that are underserved by air travel," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., in a statement. "I continue to lead the fight to fully fund EAS, and to preserve and expand air service upstate."
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