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House bill keeping EAS in Alaska approved

Posted: Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2011, was approved by the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Wednesday by a vote of 34-25 after the committee marked it up. Among many aviation program and cost adjustments, the bill proposes to keep the Essential Air Service (EAS) program in Alaska and Hawaii while phasing it out everywhere else over the next four years.

Alaska representatives in both the House and Senate have been pushing to keep the EAS going here after Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., proposed an amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill that would eliminate the $200 million program nationwide.

Congressman Don Young, R-Alaska, worked with committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., on Wednesday to ensure key provisions were included in the bill during the markup. Besides EAS, other provisions they ensured would be in the document include the continuation of three-dimensional mapping in Alaska and exemption from compliance with the regulations regarding the transportation of compressed oxygen cylinders or other oxidizing gasses aboard aircraft in Alaska.

“Aviation is an incredibly important industry to Alaska, a state densely populated with pilots,” Young said in a press release. “An issue we face time and time again in Alaska is across-the-board rulemaking that does not take into account the special geographical and infrastructure needs of our state. I thank Chairman Mica for his willingness to understand these issues and for working with me to make things right for Alaskans.”

“Receiving basic goods is not the same in the villages of Alaska as it is in most areas of the Lower 48,” Young said. “Alaska is one-fifth the size of the United States, with a road system smaller than Rhode Island’s. Most communities are completely isolated and can only receive necessities and medical care via air service. An airplane in Alaska is equivalent to a car, truck, or train elsewhere. Essential Air Service is essential for a reason; it’s a means of survival and it is very important to our state.”

The amounts needed for EAS in the two states in fiscal 2014 and every fiscal year after would be determined by the Secretary of Transportation.

On the Senate side, Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, spoke on the Senate floor this week about the issue. They spoke separately but both stressed the service is vital to rural communities that have no outgoing roads, as well as addressing the high cost of flying within the state, even with EAS subsidies.

“I can say without any reservation that this amendment would create an economic and a transportation disaster for Alaska, including the loss of jobs, livelihoods and would potentially impact health and medical situations,” Murkowski said in a press release. “The complete elimination of the EAS program could destabilize many of our rural communities, could negatively impact the integrity of Alaska’s interconnected aviation system and severely reduce air services to essential parts of the state.”

Both senators addressed how requirements in Alaska are different from the rest of the country and that other airports are not representative of those here. Each said this is a factor that separates local significance to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report that states EAS may have outlived its usefulness. McCain cited this report in his legislation’s introduction.

“Given what we face with the limited road system, weather and terrain issues, we in the state treat an airplane or helicopters like most Americans would treat their minivans. Aircraft in Alaska are not just a nice thing to have. They are a lifeline for survival, for subsistence, for travel, for recreation. They’re truly an essential part of our everyday life,” Murkowski states.

EAS currently serves 44 Alaskan communities.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.



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