Rural Alaska air travel subsidies survive cost cutting in Congress

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 7, 2012 

WASHINGTON — Subsidies for rural Alaska air travel survived the cost-cutting talk as Congress passed a four-year funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration on Monday after years of dispute.

Alaska is part of a hotly contested federal subsidy program known as Essential Air Service. The advocacy group Citizens Against Government Waste called the subsidies "low hanging fruit, something all members of Congress should oppose." Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain tried to kill the program entirely.

Modest cuts were made to the Lower 48 portion of the program but Alaska's subsidies emerged unscathed in the FAA bill, which passed the House on Friday and the Senate on Monday evening. The president is expected to sign it into law.

More than $12.5 million in federal subsidies goes to encourage airlines to fly to 144 of the more remote communities in Alaska. That includes places like Elfin Cove, Gulkana and Minto, served by small air carriers, as well as towns like Cordova, Wrangell, Yakutat and Gustavus that have Alaska Airlines flights. Alaska's congressional delegation has made the program a priority, saying it could be too expensive for airlines to service the areas if not for the subsidy.

Alaska Rep. Don Young, who is on the House transportation committee, said he was "especially proud" that Alaska saw no cuts in the program. The three members of the Alaska delegation argued that the state can't be compared to the Lower 48 when the subsidy is debated, since so much of Alaska is inaccessible by road and residents rely on air travel in order to get in and out.

"It's our highway in the sky," Alaska Sen. Mark Begich said in a Monday speech on the Senate floor.

Begich said the House tried to make massive cuts to the subsidy program. But the final version keeps passenger service going in the 144 Alaska communities along with "sensible reforms" in the Lower 48 part of the program, he said.

The FAA bill ends the subsidies to Lower 48 airports that average fewer than 10 passengers a day and are within 175 miles of a hub airport. Alaska and Hawaii are exempted from that requirement.

The government spends about $200 million a year on the program. The cuts to the Lower 48 subsidies bring the total down to about $190 million a year.

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the commerce committee, said the cut was necessary to get the House to agree to the bill. Rockefeller fought hard to keep the subsidy program alive.

"That's life and death for West Virginia and a lot of rural places," Rockefeller said.

The FAA bill also includes a requirement that the government develop a plan "to designate permanent areas in the Arctic where small unmanned aircraft may operate 24 hours per day for research and commercial purposes." Drones have been used in the Arctic to study ice level fluctuations and collect data on seal populations.

The $63 billion bill authorizes money for airports nationwide and for upgrading air traffic control systems to use Global Positioning System technology.

It represents the first long-term funding for the FAA's programs since 2007. Years of squabbling in Congress have led to 23 short-term extensions and forced a partial shutdown of the FAA last summer. Negotiators struck a deal to get it passed Monday but no one is entirely happy. Some Democrats were especially critical of a requirement in the bill that at least half an airline's employees actively support a vote on organizing a union before that vote can take place. The existing threshold to trigger a vote is 35 percent.

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