(Originally posted at MPP,Wed May 04, 2011 at 09:21:36 AM CDT)
Chip Cravaack campaigned on a promise to foster economic development while focusing on “needs rather than wants”. It is shocking to learn that Congressman Cravaack considers the only airport serving the Iron Range region as a want rather than a need and fails to recognize the importance that passenger air service plays in driving economic development.
The FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2011, of which Cravaack is a co-sponsor, contains provisions that are devastating to rural airports, including the Range Regional Airport in Hibbing. The bill repeals the Essential Air Services (EAS) Program, except in Alaska and Hawaii, on October 1, 2013. It also makes cuts to the Airport Improvement Program (AIP) that small airports rely on to make improvements to infrastructure and to address safety and security needs.
The airline industry was deregulated in 1978. As a result, airlines were able to drop service to areas that were less populated and more expensive to serve. The EAS program was enacted to ensure continuing airline service to rural communities by providing subsidies to commuter airlines. There are three airports in Minnesota that receive EAS subsidies: Thief River Falls (CD7), International Falls (CD8), and Range Regional Airport (CD8).
The Range Regional Airport currently receives a $2.9 million EAS subsidy, providing the area with three flights daily Monday through Friday and two on Saturday and Sunday. There is little doubt that without the subsidies Delta will terminate air service to Hibbing. The loss of our only air carrier would be devastating to the economy of our region, hurting two of our largest industries – tourism and mining. Airline service provides a vital connection with the global marketplace. It is of particular significance as the construction of Minnesota’s first steel plant is now underway by Essar Steel of India and as other regional businesses are seeking new markets and new partnerships. And loss of passenger airline service to the region would make it very difficult to attract new industries to the area, a critical step as we continue to look for ways to diversify our economy in preparation for the day when our minerals are gone.
Throughout the committee process, Cravaack repeatedly harped on needing to be more careful with spending taxpayer dollars, citing the federal budget. Yet the money for these programs does not come from the taxpayers, something he would be aware of if he had bothered to read the background memo provided to aviation subcommittee members by Rep. John Mica, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Money for the subsidies comes from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which is funded only by aviation users. In fact, eliminating the EAS program would have absolutely no effect on the federal budget whatsoever.
The unified message from the industry is that elimination of the EAS program and cuts to the AIP(representing a rollback to 2008 levels) significantly compromises passenger safety and severely cripples the ability of airports to make infrastructure improvements to meet safety and Homeland Security requirements.
It is surprising that Cravaack, a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security who frequently cites his former job as an airline pilot, would co-sponsor legislation that so significantly threatens passenger safety and security.
Even more astounding is that although Cravaack is perfectly comfortable breaking the agreement with rural airports in America, he felt it important to keep the agreement to fund foreign airports. Indeed, Malaysia Chip was careful to continue funding under the AIP to Midway Island, Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands through 2014.
The elimination of the EAS program is viewed as devastating to economic development throughout the nation, as well as the Iron Range. The presidents of the Regional Airline Association, National Association of State Aviation Officials, American Association of Airport Executives,and Airports Council International – North America addressed this issue in a letter opposing cuts to the AIP and elimination of the EAS sent to the House Transportation Committee:
…Cutting EAS would serve as a deathblow to the economic health of hundreds of small communities across the nation… The loss of commercial air service at these communities would likewise crush existing businesses and would cause even greater numbers of doctors and other skilled professionals (already in short supply in rural areas) to migrate to less isolated communities… Of the 435 commercial airports outside of Alaska and Hawaii, 106 of those airports receive air service only through the EAS program. Elimination of the program at those airports would shut down air travel to and from nearly one quarter of our nation’s commercial airports. The economic impact on our nations air transportation network, which provides more than 10.9 million direct us jobs and serves over 750 million passengers annually, would be substantial. Moreover, eliminating the program also eliminates the jobs of thousands of employees of those airports and the airlines serving them.
Shaun Germoulais, director of the Range Regional Airport, made a seven-hour round trip in February to meet with Cravaack at his office in North Branch. He explained the impact this legislation would have on the Range Regional Airport, including the loss of passenger air service, and the subsequent impact on region’s economy.
Germoulais had this to say in response to Congressman Cravaack’s subsequent vote for the bill:
I am disappointed with any vote that will not support the Essential Air Service Program (EAS) and reduces the Airport Improvement Program which enhances safety and efficiency at our Nation’s airports. These programs are funded through the Airport Trust Fund established by the Federal Government years ago. The funds are derived from user’s fees such as taxes on aircraft sales, aircraft fuels and airline tickets. If you are not utilizing the system you are not directly supporting these programs. Therefore, reducing what can be spent from the Aviation Trust Fund has no effect on the national deficit or savings to the general tax paying citizen. It does, however, reduce spending required by airports to update safety, security and infrastructure projects, not to mention loss of jobs when those projects are not being accomplished.
The loss of the EAS Program would be devastating for rural communities. Without the annual subsidy, most commercial airlines would exit these airports. If that would occur at the Range Regional Airport, 25-30 jobs would be in jeopardy. Approximately 32% of the airport’s annual revenue used to offset operating expenses would be lost. Local travelers would spend more money driving and incurring additional expenses at other airports. And most importantly, it places a hardship on rural communities trying to retain businesses and a competitive disadvantage when attracting new business.
Was Chip sleeping during all of the testimony from aviation experts? Did he also sleep through the meeting with Germoulais? And is he unable to grasp the simple concept that the money for the program comes from the aviation trust fund and not the taxpayers?
Perhaps if Cravaack spent more time in the 8th district instead of fundraising in Minneapolis, he would recognize the importance of passenger air service to the Iron Range region.
And this is legislation that Cravaack didn’t just support, but co-sponsored and repeatedly approved. First he voted to pass this out of the aviation subcommittee. Then he voted to pass it out of full committee. Chip voted for it a third time on the House floor on April 1. This is not just a misunderstanding. Cravaack’s intent is quite clear: he wants to be sure this program is gone and our air service along with it.
Cravaack campaigned on a promise to listen to his constituents. Well, Chip, we’re telling you we need to keep passenger air service to our airport. It is critical in our attempt diversify our economy. You seem to be doing a good job of representing the people of Micronesia, Palau, Midway Island and the Marshall Islands…now how about the people of the Iron Range?