Bill holds funding for rural airports
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.