Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Are You Paying For Someone Else's Airport?

I learn something new every day but today's new facts are startling. The Federal government pays(subsidizes) airlines to fly to many smaller airfields that cannot support regular air traffic. And this is how the "free enterprise" system is supposed to work?

This whole subject came up from a link on Overhead Wire to a story in the New York Times on small cities helping to pay for their air service. There was mention of a program that I did not know existed, the Essential Air Service program. This program was put in place during the deregulation of the airlines in 1978, so that smaller communities which had air service would not lose it due to corporate decisions.

The original program was set up to last 10 years, more than enough time to plan for and fund some alternatives to air travel for these smaller cities. The program has been extended and modified over the years with some airports being removed from the list of subsidized fields and, remarkably, others added to the list. The airport in Owensboro, Ky. was added sometime around 2000, perhaps due to the efforts of 2 Republican senators and a Republican congressman, and is subsidized to the tune of approximately $1.5 million a year. Recently, a new airport was opened in Somerset, Ky., another Republican stronghold, but it has not made the list -yet.

The timing of this program, coming just 10 years after the creation of AMTRAK(or the dismantling of America's passenger rail service) leads me to wonder-just where is the Essential Rail Service program for those cities who lost passenger rail service? And what about those cities who lost ALL rail service because of a heavily subsidized highway system given to the trucking industry?

Forty years of disproportional funding of transportation infrastructure leaning more toward highways than rail(or air) has left us well behind the rest of the world in terms of a balanced transportation system. Thirty years of funding airlines serving sparsely populated regions could have been spent on implementing a High Speed Rail ground work(like the Europeans and the Japanese) to the point the we too could be knocking on the door of 300 mph train travel.

The NY Times article focused on the smaller cities which don't appear on the EAS list, yet are seeing a loss of air service and the local community's efforts to maintain air services. These cities are too large for government subsidy and too small for economic air travel. They would be perfect for a regional rail connection to the HSR system currently proposed. The Europeans do it all the time, why can't we.

How many of these small communities will have the Federal government foot the bill for an airport and enough funding to get things started, priming the pump as it were, and then expect the same or increased funding to tide them over the rough spots. And how many rough spots will there be in the future? Airlines are the least efficient of all the mass transportation systems available today and I wonder how much longer they will be around.

With a new transportation bill pending(and maybe held up for a while) in Congress maybe now is the time to reconsider legislation of Essential Air Services and just how essential some of it is. Should these communities be weaned off the Federal dole and let their airports fend for themselves, a la the route that the Bush administration wished to do to AMTRAK? Should these airports let the free market decide(without outside manipulations) and if they aren't used adequately then they should fold? That is the Republican, is it not?

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