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Program that subsidizes flights to small airports needs more money, Transportation Department says

Posted: Thursday, December 20, 2001

WASHINGTON (AP) -- An anti-terrorism package awaiting final approval in Congress provides $50 million to maintain air service to 113 small cities through next year, despite a drop in airline passengers since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Without the extra money, Transportation Department officials predict that the Essential Air Service program will run out of money next spring.

The program subsidizes money-losing flights to certain airports to maintain scheduled commercial service. Air service to 33 Alaska communities, including Seward, Wrangell, Yakutat and Gulkana, is subsidized with $2.8 million annually under the program.

With airline passenger revenue down since Sept. 11 and security expenses up, officials said the $63 million allocated for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 is not enough to keep the program going for the entire year.

The Transportation Department estimated that another $57 million is needed. House-Senate negotiators agreed to include $50 million in the final anti-terrorism bill, which both houses are expected to ratify later this week.

Congress created the Essential Air Service program in 1978 to make sure that communities that were receiving regularly scheduled air service before deregulation did not lose all commercial flights.

For example, federal taxpayers are spending $1.1 million this year to connect Utica, N.Y., with the rest of the world, helping to pay for six roundtrips a day between Utica, N.Y., and LaGuardia Airport.

The money allows Oneida County Airport, which recently lost its last unsubsidized airline, to keep commercial planes flying.

''The business community looks at air service as not only a convenience but a necessity,'' Oneida County Executive Ralph Eannace said. ''There are some types of business that are only going to locate in a community that has air service. It establishes a part of the community identity to have that as well.''

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