Aviation programs for small communities up for debate in Congress.

May 18, 2007
EAS, Small Community Air Service Development Program

Federal support for air service to small communities will be part of the debate when Congress considers extension of federal aviation programs this summer.

Two key federal programs that benefit smaller communities across the nation were the subject of a hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, chaired by Rep. JerryCostello (D-Ill.).

The Essential Air Service (EAS) provides about $100 million in subsides each year to communities that would not have service without the program; and the Small Community Air Service Development Program (SCASDP) provides about $20 million per year in grants that have benefited smaller communities across the nation. The proposed FAA reauthorization bill proposed by the Administration would end funding for the SCASDP and restrict future growth of the EAS program.

Since the EAS program was started to help communities that would lose service due to airline deregulation, the federal government has provided subsidies ranging from about $13 to $677 per passenger.

Air carriers apply directly to the U.S. Department of Transportation for subsidies under the EAS program. Financial conditions in the aviation industry and the terrorist attacks of September 11 contributed to further reduction in airport service to medium and small communities.

The Administration's proposal to reauthorize federal airport programs includes a number of changes to the EAS program. The proposed changes would freeze the program at the status quo and not allow any newcommunities to enter the program and freeze funding at $50 million per year which would not support currently subsided programs.

Future eligibility would be limited to communities that are more than 70 driving miles from the nearest large or medium hub airport.

SCASDP was established as a pilot to provide grants to small communities to help them enhance air service in FY 2001. The one time grant helps create self sustaining air service improvements and the demand has exceeded the program. The Administration's FAA proposal does not request further funding for the SCASD program

For smaller communities, both programs have played a significant role in attacking and retaining businesses, according to municipal airport operators testifying before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation last week.

"EAS service is important to our region mainly because of economicdevelopment ... For any company looking to relocate or expand in ourcommunity, one of the first questions we will be asked is, 'how far are you from a commercial airport,'" noted Bill Hansell, commissioner, Umatilla County, Ore.

The SCASDP "provides opportunity for small and non-hub airports toincrease air service. Additionally, it gives airports the potential for developing and implementing marketing plans not necessarily possible with budget constraints on small airports," said Robert A Grierson, airport manager, Dubuque, Iowa, Regional Airport.

Congress will consider possible changes to the EAS and SCASD programs as part of a larger discussion on reauthorization of federal airport programs and the taxes that support these programs this spring and summer. The House Aviation Subcommittee has held a series of hearings on the programs, which both expire on September 30.

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