Bill holds fund­ing for ru­ral air­ports

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - DAL­TON LEFERNEY

Pas­sen­gers at three Arkansas air­ports were of­fered some re­lief by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion on Mon­day, when the U.S. House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee re­leased a draft of its hous­ing and trans­porta­tion bill, which in­cludes fund­ing for the Essen­tial Air Ser­vices pro­gram that con­nects small com­mu­ni­ties to ma­jor in­ter­na­tional hubs and large mar­kets.

Peo­ple fly­ing to and from Boone County Air­port, Memo­rial Field Air­port in Hot Springs, and South Arkansas Re­gional Air­port in El Do­rado would ben­e­fit from the fund­ing, which Trump had said needed to be cut. But in a draft of the House trans­porta­tion bud­get, law­mak­ers gave a nod to small-town con­sumers by al­low­ing about $150 mil­lion to con­tinue to be spent on the Essen­tial Air Ser­vices pro­gram, in­stead of cut­ting it from the bud­get al­to­gether.

Busi­ness pas­sen­gers can com­mute to larger mar­kets for work, and em­ploy­ees from larger mar­kets can more ef­fi­ciently visit smaller com­mu­ni­ties. The U.S. air­line in­dus­try gen­er­ates about $1.5 tril­lion a year do­mes­ti­cally, ac­cord­ing to the in­dus­try group Air­lines For Amer­ica.

The Re­gional Air Ser­vice Al­liance has iden­ti­fied some trends that help ex­plain why th­ese smaller air­ports need gov­ern­ment sup­port. One of those is the trend to­ward larger air­craft. As planes get big­ger, fewer air­ports can ac­com­mo­date them, thus the need for smaller air­ports to connect to larger hubs. Data from the group show only 36 per­cent of small air­ports “are sup­port­ing larger [70-seat plus] air­craft.”

“[The Essen­tial Air Ser­vices pro­gram] is essen­tial to com­mu­ni­ties of our size,” Boone County Air­port man-

● ager Judy McCutcheon said. “I hope they con­tinue it.”

The pro­gram is funded by the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion, which will re­ceive $17.8 bil­lion in 2018, if the bud­get is passed by Congress and signed by the pres­i­dent. That is about $646 mil­lion less than this year’s depart­ment bud­get, but about $1.5 bil­lion more than Trump had orig­i­nally pro­posed in the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s bud­get,

out ear­lier this year.

The Essen­tial Air Ser­vices pro­gram sub­si­dizes se­lected car­ri­ers’ small-load flights. In Arkansas, South­ern Air­ways Ex­press be­gan this year op­er­at­ing from the three ru­ral air­ports. A spokesman for the air­line did not re­turn calls and in­for­ma­tion on pas­sen­ger vol­ume from th­ese air­ports was un­avail­able Tues­day af­ter­noon.

All three of the air­ports have ser­vice to Dal­las/Fort Worth In­ter­na­tional Air­port, and Boone County also has ser­vice to Memphis.

Pas­sen­gers from Boone County can fly to the Dal­las/ Fort Worth air­port twice a day on the week­days, and to Memphis once a day on week­days. Dur­ing the week, there are three daily Dal­las/Fort Worth­bound flights from Hot Springs and two on Satur­day and one on Sun­day. From South Arkansas Re­gional, pas­sen­gers can fly three times daily dur­ing the week to Dal­las/Fort Worth. There is one flight to Dal­las/ Fort Worth on Satur­day, and two on Sun­day. This flight in­for­ma­tion was pro­vided by the

man­agers of the air­ports.

South­ern Air­ways be­gan fly­ing from Boone County on Feb. 1, Hot Springs in March, and South Arkansas Re­gional on June 19.

“Ev­ery­one from busi­ness to your ca­sual flier is us­ing this air­line be­cause Dal­las is a huge con­nect­ing hub,” said Keith Sis­sons, man­ager of South Arkansas Re­gional Air­port. “You can pretty much go any­where in the world from Dal­las. I’ve had doc­tors fly in, and peo­ple go­ing on va­ca­tion fly in and out.”

Glen Bar­en­tine, the Hot Springs air­port’s di­rec­tor, said peo­ple in the com­mu­nity over­whelm­ingly wanted Dal­las as an op­tion. And com­mu­nity of­fi­cials wanted flights to At­lanta, but the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion did not grant sub­si­dized flights to that city.

The pro­posed bud­get also comes with stip­u­la­tions. Ac­cord­ing to the draft, none of the fund­ing can be used to sub­si­dize flights from small hub air­ports within 40 miles of an ex­ist­ing Essen­tial Air Ser­vices air­port.

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