Unless Congress acts quickly, 55 small airports each will lose $850,000 of their $1 million annual allotment in federal Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funds to pay for capital improvement projects.
The airports have been beneficiaries of a post-Sept. 11 program designed to help small airports harmed by the dramatic drop-off in passenger air service. Congress in the 2003 Vision 100 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization legislation created a limited program, the "virtual primary" airport, which "sunsets," or expires, on Sept. 30 unless Congress takes action.
Under the program, those airports that had at least 10,000 passenger boardings in 2000 or 2001, but then had far fewer boardings in 2002 or 2003, were entitled to receive a $1 million annual grant of AIP funds in federal fiscal years 2004 and 2005. With the expiration of the program, those communities that failed to cross the 10,000 mark in 2004 are assured of receiving only $150,000 in AIP funds, said Todd Jorns, legislative director of Regional Aviation Partners (RAP). The airports would lose their special designation as virtual primary airports and fall into the FAA classification as primary non-hub airports.
Forty-two of the 55 airports have some level of commercial scheduled service and 26 of the airports participate in the Essential Air Service (EAS) program. Those currently without scheduled service for the most part are the ones that are far short of the 10,000-passenger mark - in fact some barely had more than 500 passenger boardings in 2003 - the last year for which data is available. Some without scheduled service have been able to get by with charter operations.
While the program was designed to sunset on Sept. 30, no lawmaker has made any effort to extend the program.
RAP is now working to get the Department of Transportation (DOT) appropriations measure amended on the floor of the Senate to include an extension of the program. The Senate will act on the appropriation when it returns from its August break. While the federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1, Congress has not always completed work on DOT's and other agencies' appropriation bills before the start of the new fiscal year.
The House has already passed a DOT appropriations bill so House and Senate negotiators will need to iron out any differences in the bills in a conference committee. RAP is betting that if the measure can be amended in the Senate, then it will be approved in the House as part of the conference committee report.
To date, the program has had mixed results on Capitol Hill.
Jorns said that Sen. Arlen Specter, the senior Republican from Pennsylvania, has taken an interest in trying to save the program since five of the 55 airports are in his home state. Outside of Alaska, no state has more participants in the program than Pennsylvania. Specter is working informally with the Senate transportation subcommittee to win its endorsement of the extension, Jorns said. The chances of a floor amendment succeeding would increase with an endorsement, he added.
"It does not look like the effort is going very far," said Robert Shaffer, manager of the DuBois-Jefferson County Airport, near Brookville, Pa. "Sen. Specter put forth some efforts, but they have been unsuccessful in recent weeks."
A spokesperson for Specter's office could not be reached to clarify his ongoing efforts.
A second legislator has joined the cause. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), an original proponent of the program, is working to obtain an extension. "We are in conversations with the commerce committee staff to reauthorize the program," said David DiMartino, Nelson's spokesman. "We are working with the committee to find a vehicle. I don't know that the appropriations bill is the right vehicle. We are exploring our options."
DiMartino said Nelson's office was unaware of Specter's work and would be contacting his staff. Three of the 55 airports are in Nelson's home state of Nebraska.
Shaffer is hopeful that the DuBois airport will be back up to full federal funding in fiscal year 2007.
"We are on track to being over 10,000 [passengers] this calendar year. We have been averaging 1,200 to 1,500 each month. We are coming back, however, a lot of small facilities are not coming back and do need the program," Shaffer said. Prior to 2001, Shaffer said the DuBois airport had annual passenger boardings that ranged from 14,000 to 16,000.
"We were cognizant that our funding was in jeopardy. We were hoping to get our numbers back. We only missed by 400. It is not much, but if you are off by one, then you are out."
With its most recent $1 million AIP grant, DuBois purchased a firefighting rescue vehicle and in the previous year it purchased a high-speed broom for snow removal.
With the AIP funding falling to $150,000 next year, Shaffer said the airport is delaying the installation of a new water tower that would have improved the water pressure at the airport and at its budding business park.
However, the airport will build a new road that will link the airport to a new access road off Interstate 80 with AIP funds that had been banked.
Knowing that it would soon have its AIP funds cut, Moses Lake, Wash., has been tackling major capital projects and equipment purchases while it still has the money, said Craig Baldwin, its executive director. The money is being used to engineer a taxiway rehabilitation. The airport is hoping to then win a discretionary grant for the project, otherwise it will have to be a multi-year project based on the $150,000 grants.
In 2000, Moses Lake had 12,000 enplanements. Baldwin said this year it may hit 5,000. Big Sky is now flying twice a day to Portland, Ore., and once a day to Boise, Idaho.