WASHINGTON — Federal subsidies would phase out at airports in Merced and Visalia, saving taxpayer dollars but alarming some rural air travel proponents, under a House bill set for approval this week.
The two San Joaquin Valley airports are among four in California, and among 110 nationwide, slated to lose subsidies if the Essential Air Service program ends in October 2013, as the bill proposes.
"I'd hate to see it go away," Ron Elliott, manager of the Merced Regional Airport, said Tuesday. "I see it as a huge economic development tool, for a county that's hurting."
Other subsidy beneficiaries, though, suggest they can live with the legislation due for a House vote Thursday.
"It's been very useful to us ... it's been a lifeline for us to build our service," Visalia Municipal Airport manager Mario Cifuentez II said Tuesday, "but we don't want to be subsidized forever."
Initiated in 1978 as a supposedly temporary boost following airline deregulation, the Essential Air Service program funds airlines that serve specific airports. Last year, supported in part through airline fees, the program cost $200 million.
The Visalia and Merced airports are both served by Great Lakes Airlines, which provides subsidized air service to Southern California. Cifuentez said it's been a goal of his airport to eventually get by without the subsidy.
The annual subsidy for both the Visalia and Merced airports amounts to about $1.5 million a year, according to Transportation Department records.
"It's a great thing for our community," Elliott said.
On Monday, Great Lakes announced it would resume flights from Merced to Los Angeles International Airport in mid-May. A similar announcement will soon take place concerning the Visalia airport, Cifuentez said, and he predicted the new service will enable his airport to wean itself from the subsidy.
But in a sign of Capitol Hill fights still to come, House Democrats are casting the bill as too draconian. After 2013, the bill would only retain the rural air subsidy program for airports in Hawaii and Alaska.
"(It) effectively contemplates a policy of two Americas — one wealthy enough to support scheduled air service, and the other increasingly isolated and unable to afford full access to our national aviation system," declared Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.
Rahall is the senior Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The panel produces some of the most politically popular bills in Congress, including a giant rails-and-highways bill that's traditionally stuffed with local projects.
The Essential Air Service program is included in a separate Federal Aviation Administration authorization bill. The legislation includes many other provisions, including a study of cell phone use in airplanes and new requirements for tougher standards governing air ambulances.
The Senate's version of the bill that passed last month shrinks the air subsidy but does not eliminate it altogether.
"It is not absolutely necessary that we subsidize some of these smaller airports that are close to regional airports," Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma declared during Senate debate, adding that "we will all have to sacrifice" to shrink the deficit.
House and Senate members will have to resolve their differences in a final bill.