U.S. Rep. John Mica is defending his efforts to ground an airport subsidy program whose costs have ballooned 300 percent in the past decade.
The Orlando Republican who chairs the House Transportation Committee was blamed by Democrats and the media for holding up approval of the Federal Aviation Administration budget.
But Mica says he was simply trying to chip away at a program that pays government subsidies of up to $3,700 per airline ticket at rural airports.
The American people have witnessed firsthand how truly difficult it is to bring about even modest reforms and cut wasteful programs in Washington, like $3,720 individual airline ticket subsidies," Mica said.
Mica's target was the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes airline travel at small airports around the country.
EAS, launched with airline deregulation for the purpose of maintaining air service at small airports, was intended to sunset after 10 years.
But instead of phasing out, EAS has actually grown by about $200 million each year -- even though the number of airports has not expanded, said Justin Harclerode, communications director for the House Transportation Committee.
Seeking to trim $16.5 million by ending subsidies at 13 of the small airports, Mica's gambit held up passage of a long-term FAA bill. The Capitol Hill stare-down over the small sum was all the more surreal, given that the last FAA funding law had expired in 2007. Money continued to roll via temporary funding provisions.
"We've been spinning our wheels for four and a half years," Harclerode stated.
Amid shrill complaints from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and other rural lawmakers over Mica's EAS cuts, House Republicans and Senate Democrats agreed to move the funding bill forward -- with a provision giving Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood the discretion to reinstate the subsidies.
There is no doubt that LaHood will restore the funds, despite the fact that the House-passed extension contained only two EAS reforms, most of which were approved by the Senate:
- The extension contained section 420 of the Senate bill, which eliminates subsidies at 10 locations that are within 90 miles of a large- or medium-size airport (Athens, Ga.; Morgantown, W.Va.; Jamestown, N.Y.; Bradford, Pa.; Hagerstown, Md.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Johnstown, Pa.; Franklin/Oil City, Pa.; Lancaster, Pa.; and Jackson, Tenn.).
- The extension contained another provision that eliminates EAS eligibility where service is subsidized at more than $1,000 per ticket, which eliminates subsidies at three locations (Ely, Nev., where subsidies are $3,720 per ticket; Alamogordo/Holloman AFB, N.M., $1,563 per ticket; and Glendive, Mont., $1,358 per ticket).
Although the Senate version did not use the $1,000 criteria, its bill still would have eliminated subsidies at these same three airports because they also each average fewer than 10 passengers per day, a House staff analysis noted.
In fiscal year 2010, 34 EAS communities averaged fewer than 10 enplanements per day.Of these 34 communities, 22 had so few enplanements that, on average, there were more pilots on board the flights than passengers.
Modestly, the House's long-term reauthorization bill would have phased out the EAS program over four years -- more than two decades after it was originally scheduled to sunset. The House version would also exempt Alaska and Hawaii from the phase out.
Still, Democrats, led by Rockefeller, denounced any attempt to trim EAS, earning the program the sobriquet of "Air Rockefeller."
"The Barack Obama/Ray LaHood/Harry Reid press blitz has been a bit over the top," observed Brian Waldrip, spokesman for Mica.
"Moving forward, how can we justify [the] federal $1,000-plus ticket per seat when budgets/programs are going to be cut back so drastically?And these are the 'easy' choice.
"It is going to be a long year," Waldrip said.
Reach Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (772) 801-5341.