EDITORIAL: Air service funds

By NEMS Daily Journal

President Obama’s proposed budget for 2011 would reduce spending for the Essential Air Service Program, the federal subsidy that remains critical to the survival of commercial air service for Tupelo Regional Airport.
The budget, announced earlier, would cut EAS spending to $182 million from $200 million despite cities lined up to enter the program to help sustain, at least temporarily, the profitability of airline flights to and from their airports.
Tupelo, whose boardings have sharply declined in the past two years with a two-daily-flights and one-carrier schedule, seeks to become an EAS city in a subsidy agreement using Delta Air Lines’ Mesaba regional carrier.
Tupelo prefers a three-flight schedule option that includes daily service to and from Memphis and Atlanta. That option would cost about $2 million in federal funds, but other schedules also are under consideration by the Federal Aviation Administration decision-makers, one costing about $1 million with two daily flights – one to Memphis and one to Atlanta.
Most disturbing in the Obama proposal is an Oct. 1, 2010, cutoff for cities to join the EAS program. The proposed law would prohibit adding new communities in the lower 48 states when the 2011 budget year starts Oct. 1.
Tupelo would start the program in budget year 2011 unless a supplemental appropriation agreement is reached to place Tupelo earlier, if basic participation approval is granted.
Under the EAS program, the Department of Transportation determines the minimum level of service required at each eligible community, specifies a hub through which the community is linked, a minimum number of round trips and available seats that must be provided, certain characteristics of the aircraft to be used, and the maximum permissible number of intermediate stops. Where necessary, the department pays subsidy to a carrier to ensure that the specified level of service is provided. As of April 1, 2009, the Department was subsidizing service at 108 communities in the contiguous 48 states, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, and 45 in Alaska.
Greenville, Laurel-Hattiesburg and Meridian already are designated, subsidized EAS cities, as is Muscle Shoals, Ala., sometimes linked to Tupelo in schedules.
Macon, Ga., a city like Tupelo that’s near a major airport hub (Atlanta) has long been in the EAS program to the Atlanta airport.
Northeast Mississippi’s congressional delegation (U.S. Rep. Travis Childers and U.S. Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker) will be called on to assure a reasonable EAS budget.
As the late U.S. Rep. Jamie Whitten often said of his Appropriations Committee role, “The president proposes, and Congress disposes” on spending.