Regional flights could lose subsidies

Bill would end eligibility of Macon, Athens for federal money

Airline flights from Atlanta to Athens and Macon could lose eligibility for federal subsidies as Congress looks for ways to cut programs some legislators consider wasteful.

The federal Essential Air Service program subsidized 20-minute flights on nine-passenger planes that often flew nearly empty between Atlanta and Macon until January, and it continues to subsidize flights between Atlanta and Athens.

U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., cited support for Atlanta-Macon flights as an example of “the most wasteful government spending” last year, noting an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report that the subsidy amounted to $464 per passenger based on actual ridership.

The Senate passed an aviation funding bill last month that included a Coburn amendment to ax the subsidies for cities within 90 miles of larger airports and for flights that carry fewer than 10 passengers per day. The House is considering a version that would not immediately change eligibility — but would gradually dismantle the entire subsidy program everywhere but Alaska and Hawaii.

Both Macon and Athens would be eliminated from eligibility under the Senate legislation, along with about 33 other markets, according to Coburn’s office. Roughly 675 communities are eligible for the EAS program, and about 154 have subsidized service.

The move was included in the Federal Aviation Administration’s reauthorization bill, which holds overall funding for EAS steady. The Senate earlier rejected a proposal by U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to eliminate the EAS program altogether.

Whatever the final legislative outcome after the House deals with the matter, Athens Mayor Nancy Denson said the end of the subsidy would not necessarily leave Athens without commercial flights.

“That remains to be seen,” Denson said. “I would always rather see things done without tax subsidies, if that’s a feasible thing to do.”

At Macon’s Middle Georgia Regional Airport, the federal subsidy that drew Coburn’s attention actually was discontinued in January after the small airline flying there, GeorgiaSkies, decided to drop the subsidy after competing airlines sought to win the federal funding. The subsidy isn’t awarded if an airline flies without one.

Since then, GeorgiaSkies’ Atlanta-Macon fares have jumped significantly from the $49 each way charged while it got the subsidy — and passenger counts have declined further. Greg Kahlstorf, chief executive of GeorgiaSkies parent Pacific Air Holdings, said he’s unsure whether GeorgiaSkies will continue the route.

Meanwhile, a second carrier has announced plans to serve Macon: Vision Airlines said it will fly from Macon to Destin, Fla., starting in several weeks, also without a subsidy.

GeorgiaSkies still flies the Atlanta-Athens route with a subsidy, although Kahlstorf said his airline would like to operate without it. Fares for the route on GeorgiaSkies’ website are about $55 each way, though they can go higher.

“It’d be foolish to think that [EAS] is going to escape some cuts,” Kahlstorf said. Although Kahlstorf’s airline is a beneficiary of the program, he said, “Everyone has had to tighten their belts to deal with this economy. The EAS program shouldn’t be any different.”

Despite occasional flak, the Essential Air Service program has long been prized by members of Congress for the flights it helps bring to communities they represent.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said in a written statement last month that he has “fought off efforts” to eliminate the EAS program or cut off specific communities, adding, “Air travel is a critical economic development factor in West Virginia and not something that I will give up without a fight.”

However, the House Transportation Committee has approved a version of the FAA bill including what amounts to a phase-out of the EAS program over four years, while preserving a form of it in Alaska and Hawaii, where it is used to serve remote towns that lack conventional access.

The two chambers will have to resolve the differences.

The program “is not as jealously guarded as it used to be,” Kahlstorf said. “It would be political suicide right now, in this economy, to be pushing programs that are known to be wasteful.”

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