Alaska Editorial: Subsidized flights essential for survival

Posted: Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Imagine life in rural Alaska without access to regular, dependable air travel.

Bush villages would be cut off completely, or flights to those communities would be sporadic and/or prohibitively expensive. Essential supplies such as food and fuel would become even more expensive, and life - already difficult in many of the state's remote areas - would get much more complicated.

The primary reason - often the only reason - many communities in Alaska receive regular flights is the Essential Air Service program, a federal subsidy that pays airlines to fly into small towns.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Web site, "The Airline Deregulation Act, passed in 1978, gave airlines almost total freedom to determine which markets to serve domestically and what fares to charge for that service. The Essential Air Service program was put into place to guarantee that small communities that were served by certified air carriers before deregulation maintain a minimal level of scheduled air service."

Alaska isn't the only state that benefits from the program, and we don't even receive the lion's share of its approximately $110-million budget. Alaska communities served by the program, however, far outnumber those in any other state. The U.S. Department of Transportation Web site lists nearly 40 Alaska villages that benefited from the EAS program last year.

President Bush and his administration have proposed cutting the Essential Air Service program in 2009 by $60 million. The president's budget states that the action "streamlines Essential Air Service to maintain the program's original goal: providing incentives to airlines to ensure they continue to fly to small communities that were served prior to airline deregulation."

To qualify now, according to the federal DOT Web site, communities must be farther than 70 driving miles of a large or medium hub airport, and their subsidy per passenger must not exceed $200. There is an exception from the $200-per-passenger standard for communities that are more than 210 highway miles from the nearest hub, according to DOT.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, issued a statement against the president's proposed cut following a recent Senate Transportation Committee hearing.

"Now you tell me. You're going to have to play God and tell me which villages get cut off and don't get three flights a week," Stevens said in an e-mailed statement. "That's everything. That's milk and sugar and flour. Everything comes in by air."

Stevens' spokesman Aaron Saunders said Friday that the White House proposed a similar cut last year, but Congress decided to increase the program's budget appropriation to maintain its funding level. Saunders said Stevens plans to work with other lawmakers again to increase the amount for 2009, but such increases are becoming more difficult.

It's early in the 2009 federal budget process, so it's not clear what Alaska villages, if any, would be affected by any cuts. Saunders rightly pointed out, though, that if all the communities cut from the Essential Air Service program were in the Lower 48, it would become an Alaska-specific subsidy, and general support for the program likely would plummet.

Then it would become a program that funds "flights to nowhere," and we all know what happens next.

It's always a good idea to take a careful look at budgets, and make sure the government isn't wasting taxpayer money. However, cutting $60 million out of a $110-million program that - from Alaska's point of view - is critical to many communities' survival doesn't make sense.

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