Air subsidy future still uncertain

By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Essential Air Service helps provide air service to some 150 communities across the U.S. – including four in Mississippi – but many critics want to cut or even eliminate the 33-year-old program.
In a time where government spending is scrutinized and criticized, the program – which costs about $200 million a year – is in the bull’s-eye of cost-cutters.
That could affect four Mississippi airports – Tupelo, Greenville, Hattiesburg/Laurel and Meridian – that benefit from it.
Late Thursday, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved the FY2012 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill that includes funding for EAS.
The committee recommends $143 million for EAS, $6.7 million less than appropriated for FY2011. That’s in addition to the $50 million collected in overflight fees by the Federal Aviation Administration. The fees are charged to aircraft that don’t take off or land in the U.S. By law, the FAA distributes the first $50 million collected to help fund EAS.
Another $17 million in “obligated balances” also is available for EAS, giving the program some $210 million, according to the committee’s plan. That’s roughly $19.7 million more than requested by the FAA.
But there’s no guarantee the FAA will get that full amount.
Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who sits on the committee, said, “It is too early to determine the final funding level” for the program, “but I am pleased that the Senate Appropriations Committee has agreed to continue the program and address some of the challenges facing the program.”
The state’s other Republican U.S. Senator, Roger Wicker, said: “Reliable air service provides an important economic benefit for rural communities. I will continue working with Tupelo and all of Mississippi’s airports to look at the best opportunities moving forward.”
The Obama administration requested $123,254,000 for EAS, in addition to the $50 million, plus an estimated $22 million in unobligated balances for a total budget of $173,254,000.
Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee asks for even less – $100 million. Some House members also have supported legislation calling for the elimination of EAS by 2013.
Rep. Alan Nunnelee, a Republican who represents Mississippi’s 1st District, has said he doesn’t favor continued EAS funding.
That leaves the future of EAS in the air.
“This legislation is now available for the full Senate to consider, although we do not now know which appropriations bills the Senate leadership might want to consider in October,” said Chris Gallegos, a spokesman for Cochran. “Another scenario would be for the Transportation and HUD funding measure to be wrapped into a larger spending bill package – a so-called omnibus or minibus. Either way, the Senate and House will have to reconcile any differences they have for EAS and other programs funded in this bill.”
dennis.seid@journalinc.com