Wednesday, the Alaska Senate passed a resolution encouraging the U.S. Congress to fully fund the Essential Air Service (EAS) program in Alaska. While the resolution won’t actually guarantee any funding for the program, we applaud its intent and strong, unanimous message to Washington, and we are hopeful the House, Senate and White House will listen.
Sen. John McCain’s efforts to eliminate subsidized air travel to and from small communities across America, including 44 here in Alaska, suggest he is on a mission to answer only the question “How much can we cut?” and ignoring the interrogatory “What are we cutting?”
And that’s not a good thing.
EAS subsidies sprang up in the late 1970s as airlines moved toward government deregulation. The purpose of the EAS program was to ensure airlines suddenly free from government mandates to provide service to smaller towns would still have an economic incentive to do so. Many of these cities, despite being some distance from a larger airport, served and continue to serve as regional centers of economic activity, and it was deemed important to make sure people who relied on these smaller hubs for business could connect from there to the rest of the nation by air. Even today, a drive from EAS city Liberal, Kan. to its nearest major hub airport in Denver takes 61/2 hours while a flight takes 20 minutes, saving nearly a day of travel time.
In Alaska, EAS subsidies are even more important, as much of the state is disconnected from the road system. Driving from Angoon to Juneau to catch a flight simply isn’t an option. Sure, there’s the ferry. Twice a week. An option, perhaps, if a trip can be planned in advance and if someone’s got seven or so hours to kill. That’s not always practical or possible.
Of course, given the federal debt stood at $13.5 trillion in September 2010, everything Washington spends money on is fair game for scrutiny. Had McCain suggested a review of the EAS program, and urged cuts where they can be reasonably made, we’d be much more inclined to support his stance. Maybe, in this fiscal day and age, it’s appropriate to save $1.5 million a year by asking the residents of Clovis, N.M. to drive a couple of hours to Lubbock, Texas to catch a flight. But not every government dollar spent is wasted or is in vain, and if cuts need to be made to programs such as EAS, we encourage the federal government to scale them back to efficient executions of their good intentions, instead of simply dropping them altogether simply because it can be difficult to separate the necessary from the excess.
Finally, it must be pointed out that, in 2010, EAS received about $175 million from the federal government. Put another way, that’s about .00005 percent of the $3.55 trillion Washington spent in 2010. Again, no expenditure can be considered sacrosanct, but we’d rather Congress take its scalpel to bigger slices of the spending pie — such as the excesses in Social Security and defense spending — before looking to toss crumbs from the tin.
Affordable air travel is a necessity for Alaskans as well as for many in the Lower 48. If there are efficiencies to be found in how it is funded, then here’s hoping they are implemented. But to toss an entire program that provides essential accessibility to Alaska’s — and America’s — travel hubs is misguided political puffery, not an honest attempt to address our country’s fiscal woes.