Friday, March 17, 2017
Trump cuts could close small city airports in Alabama and Mississippi
By Christopher Harress
The Birmingham (AL) News
The $54 billion worth of government's cuts proposed by President Donald Trump's administration Thursday could see regional airports across the United States close, including Northwest Alabama Airport in Muscle Shoals.
The plan, known as "America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again" proposes to cut the Essential Air Service (EAS), a Department of Transport program that guarantees regular flights for isolated communities across the country. The subsidy is usually awarded to smaller air carriers, ensuring that serving the small airports remains worthwhile and profitable.
"We were disappointed to hear the news," said Muscle Shoals Mayor David Bradford in an interview with AL.com. "We could see job losses at the airport and the airport could even close if this budget goes ahead. We hope to have our Congressman look at this and make changes."
The EAS, which set up more than 40 years ago, supports 115 isolated communities in the contiguous United States and around 60 in Alaska, according to the Department of Transportation. The specific program cuts are expected to save $175 million in the 2017 budget, a small part of the billions of dollars worth of cuts that Trump will use to realize his military and immigration enforcement ambitions.
The cuts are also expected to hit the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department. Both will be hit with around 30 percent reductions to their budgets, according to the report. However, given the size and scope of the cuts, it's expected that the White House's proposals will be met with stiff resistance from both sides of the aisle. Republicans with advanced knowledge of the proposals are thought to be concerned by big cuts to education, state and the treasury, and reductions in foreign aid and diplomacy.
The need for the EAS was established in the wake of the Airline Deregulation Act (1978) that allowed airlines to concentrate on more lucrative markets, which subsequently saw them withdraw from the smaller regional markets. The EAS was established to ensure that small communities remained connected to the National Air Transportation System.
Many of the airports offer an economic lifeline to small and rural communities, according to the Regional Airline Association (RAA).
"At a time when rural America is struggling for economic parity, commercial airline service is a lifeline that helps communities attract and support businesses and retain professionals, including doctors, nurses, teachers, entrepreneurs, and countless other individuals, who view reliable air service favorably when deciding where to live and work," said RAA president Faye Malarkey Black. "We encourage President Trump and his Administration to get to know America's regional airlines, help us implement safety-first solutions to the pilot shortage, and ensure the nation's airspace is responsive to the only commercial airlines serving our nation's smallest communities. We look forward to discussing the important role regional airlines play in keeping our country connected and its economy humming."
Referencing the EAS, Trump's budget said the initiative had been "originally conceived of as a temporary program nearly 40 years ago to provide subsidized commercial air service to rural airports" and that most "EAS flights are not full and have high subsidy costs per passenger."
The budget proposal added that several EAS-eligible communities are relatively close to major airports, and communities that have EAS could be served by other existing modes of transportation.
The EAS contributes around $2.8 million to air travel out of Muscle Shoals, a subsidy that is solely in the hands of San-Francisco-based carrier Boutique Air. The carrier sends one eight-seater aircraft to Nashville and Atlanta, providing a total of 24 return flights a week. Boutique Air's contract with the DOT was supposed to run from Feb. 2016 to Feb. 2018.
Between 2005 and 2015, passenger boarding at the Northwest Alabama Regional declined from 6,157 to 802 in 2015, according to Federal Aviation Administration Data. Without further EAS funding, Boutique Air may not be able to carry on its services.
"We believe the Essential Air Service Program (EAS) is extremely valuable for communities throughout the U.S. Not only does the EAS program serve the residents of these communities but it also supports the businesses and commerce in the area," said CEO, Shawn Simpson. "Boutique Air flights to larger hub airports allow small town Americans to stay connected to the rest of the country for both business and leisure travel."
While the program is designed to serve isolated communities, it should be noted that Muscle Shoals is less than two hours from Huntsville, which has an airport with daily services to Atlanta and Charlotte, among others. It also sends cargo as far as London and Hong Kong.
The airport had been served by several smaller airlines since 2010, when Delta said it would no longer continue flights to Memphis. However, Delta was forced to wait more than two years before a replacement carrier was found. Under the
terms of the EAS program it is illegal to leave a airport without a carrier.
In addition, air carriers flying out of four Mississippi airports will also lose the subsidy. Greenville, Hattiesburg, Meridian and Tupelo are the airports that will be affected. The Meridian region in Mississippi borders the Alabama counties of Choctaw and Sumter, and took just under 25,000 passengers in 2015, up by nearly 270 percent from the year previous, according to Federal Aviation Administration records. Carrier Jet Express, which does business as American Eagle, declined to comment.
Speaking to AL.com Wednesday, Alabama's lawmakers exercised caution when told of how the overall cuts would affect the Yellowhammer state. "It is important to note that the proposed cuts are just that, a proposal," said Sen. Richard Shelby in an email statement. "Once submitted (by the president), I plan to carefully review the president's budget and look forward to working with my colleagues on the appropriations committee to make sure important projects are properly funded."
Sen. Luther Strange, who recently took over his office from the now Attorney General Jeff Sessions also told AL.com said: "One of the great things about our government is that no one person gets to decide how money is spent. I look forward to working with the White House and my colleagues on the appropriate committees in Congress on a budget that cuts waste, fraud and abuse while prioritizing the many pressing needs of our nation."