Lawmakers eye fate of rural airports

A flight takes off from the Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport Friday.  The airport is among 110 in the country that could loose a large portion of it's funding if Congress eliminates the Essintial Air Services program.  Maine Congressman Michael Michaud voted against the bill that would eliminate the funding.
A flight takes off from the Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport Friday. The airport is among 110 in the country that could loose a large portion of it's funding if Congress eliminates the Essintial Air Services program. Maine Congressman Michael Michaud voted against the bill that would eliminate the funding.
Posted Feb. 18, 2011, at 9:33 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 21, 2011, at 11:30 a.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Members of the state’s congressional delegation are fighting to keep in place a federal program that provides significant financial support for 110 airports across the country, including four facilities in Maine.

On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud voted against a four-year reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration when the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee considered the legislation. The bill would eliminate Essential Air Service program support for 110 airports across the country, including airports in Presque Isle, Bar Harbor, Rockland and Augusta, while preserving the program just for Alaska. The most recent long-term FAA reauthorization bill expired Sept. 30, 2007. Since then, Congress has passed a series of short-term extensions of FAA’s authority.

Despite Michaud’s efforts, the bill was approved by the House committee and awaits a full House vote.

The EAS program provides subsidies to air carriers for providing service between selected small communities and hub airports. The program was established in 1978 as part of airline deregulation to ensure a minimum level of air service to smaller communities that otherwise might lose service because of economic factors.

The U.S. Senate late Thursday passed its own version of the bill, which maintains the EAS program, by an 87-8 vote. Ed Gilman, communications director for Michaud, said Friday that if the House and Senate remain at odds after the final House vote, the two chambers would work to reconcile the differences.

“If that happens, the congressman will work to restore funding for the program throughout that process,” Gilman said.

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe successfully took action to protect EAS funding when the Senate considered its version of the bill Thursday evening. During the process, U.S. Sen. John McCain proposed an amendment to kill the EAS program. Snowe opposed the amendment, speaking out against erasing financial support for an initiative that she said “provides vital support for Maine’s rural airports.”

The amendment was voted down and the full bill, with funding for the EAS program, passed.

Michaud noted that airports serve as “significant economic centers of communities and entire regions.”

“Without them we’d have an even tougher time attracting businesses to our state, promoting economic development and creating jobs,” he said. “I support updating the program to make it more efficient, but eliminating it will force airports in Maine to close their doors, dealing a significant blow to local economies around our state.”

Last week, Michaud sent a letter to his colleagues on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee urging them to preserve the EAS program.

In the letter, Michaud said that eliminating or drastically reducing the EAS program “would have a devastating effect on the economy of Maine’s second congressional district.” He said that if the program did not exist, families in remote areas of the state would have fewer travel options and businesses would reconsider their decisions to locate to rural and underdeveloped areas, which Michaud noted “desperately need their economic contributions.”

He pointed to Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport in Trenton, telling colleagues that it “provides a mode of travel to a wide range of businesses and is critical for the summer tourism industry.”

He also singled out Northern Maine Regional Airport in Presque Isle, saying the airport “serves individuals and businesses that would otherwise have to drive three to five hours to access air transportation.”

“Without EAS, these airports would struggle to survive, and the economies of these areas would suffer,” he wrote.

Scott Wardwell, director of the Presque Isle airport, said eliminating the program would have “a devastating effect on businesses located in rural communities.”

M. Allison Navia, airport manager for the Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport, noted how important the airport is in that county, especially in summer. She noted that President Barack Obama flew into the airport last summer during a brief vacation on Mount Desert Island.

She said that the region’s “massive summer tourism industry” would suffer if air carrier service were lost.

“During the winter months, many local businesses, including The Jackson Laboratory, that use our air service for their travel needs, would be left without this option,” she added. “Job losses would also result, hurting many people and their families in a time when the people of our country cannot afford to be jobless.”

Navia said that she would be in support of reworking the EAS program to make it more efficient and effective, but she was totally against “pulling the rug out from under my airport and my community, leaving us all scrambling to pick up the pieces and struggling for a solution.”

In opposing McCain’s amendment to kill the EAS program, Snowe pointed to the fact that Presque Isle and Fort Kent both recently hosted biathletes who took part in two World Cup competitions. Many of the athletes and the estimated 30,000 spectators flew into the Presque Isle airport.

Severing direct air links to major employers and popular vacation spots is precisely the wrong approach to incentivizing job growth while unemployment remains at 9 percent, said Snowe.

Gilman said Friday that Michaud is “hopeful” about the prospect of the EAS funding being retained.

The House is expected to take up the matter in a few weeks.

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