Senators fight to defend rural air service from Trump budget cuts

Senators fight to defend rural air service from Trump budget cuts
© Greg Nash

A bipartisan group of senators is fighting to maintain commercial air service in rural communities after the Trump administration called for eliminating federal support for such a program.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said Thursday that he was “floored” by the president’s budget proposal, which proposes cutting all funding for Essential Air Service (EAS). The 40-year-old program helps give small towns and remote communities access to air service, where it can otherwise be difficult to support financially.

Peters is leading a group of senators in urging appropriators to provide “robust funding” for the program, which has strong support among many rural Republicans and Democrats.

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“The program connects over 170 small communities in the United States to the National Air Transportation System, providing them an essential connection point for travel throughout the country,” the senators wrote in a letter.

“Without this program, these communities would lose air service as airlines would move to only serve more profitable markets. That would leave some communities hundreds of miles away from the nearest large- or medium-hub airport.”

The letter is signed by 21 lawmakers, including two Republicans: Sens. Mike Rounds (S.D.) and Dan Sullivan (Alaska).

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneRove warns Senate GOP: Don't put only focus on base Leaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions MORE (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, did not sign on to the effort but expressed support for the program.

“Access to the national air transportation system is a serious concern for those who live or work long distances from even the smallest airport,” Thune said during an aviation subcommittee hearing on Thursday. “Connectivity for small and rural communities is vital to the economy.”

Trump’s spending blueprint argued that EAS should be eliminated because the flights “are not full and have high subsidy costs per passenger” and that “several EAS-eligible communities are relatively close to major airports.”

But local officials warn that cuts to the program — which costs taxpayers about $175 million per year — would be devastating. They point out that commercial air service provides better access to businesses in those areas and thus helps boost the country’s economy.

“If you want us in rural America, in towns like Pierre, to be economic contributors, than we need to have access to air service to keep us connected to the rest of the nation,” Laurie Gill, mayor of Pierre, S.D., said at the subcommittee hearing.

Rural lawmakers have been pressing Trump to keep rural regions in mind when he crafts his $1 trillion infrastructure package. The administration has signaled the plan will include a mix of public and private financing to help target a diverse range of transportation projects.

But there is another proposal being touted by Trump that is raising concern among rural communities. The president’s budget called for spinning off air traffic control from the federal government and handing it over to a nonprofit or nongovernmental agency in an effort to modernize operations.

Critics argue that the interests of the general aviation industry and small airports would not be adequately represented under such a model, and worry that an outside agency would impose new fees and taxes.

“Rural communities, agriculture and small businesses stand to lose the most under a privatized system, where there would be no Congressional oversight to ensure that all stakeholders and communities have access to air transportation,” a group of rural and agricultural organizations wrote in a letter to congressional transportation leaders this week.

“A private board dominated by the largest commercial operators would undoubtedly direct resources and investments to the largest hub airports and urban areas where these investments would be most likely to benefit their bottom line.”