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U.S. plan imperils rural air traffic

3 state airports face pinch from subsidy

Thursday, November 06, 2003

By Lara Jakes Jordan, The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Cash-strapped rural airports in 10 states, including Pennsylvania, could be forced to ground commercial flights under a little-noticed plan that could be approved by the Senate as early as this week, opponents say.

The plan, tucked into a massive federal aviation spending bill, would require 10 airports -- chosen from a pool of 29 airports in 18 states -- to pay part of a government subsidy to commuter airlines that fly in and out of rural communities.

But the airports, largely located in rural, economically barren areas "don't have the money," said Rep. John Peterson, R-Pa., who co-chairs the Congressional Rural Caucus and is leading the fight to defeat the airport plan.

"This could prevent a rural airport from continuing to have service," Peterson said. "You're forcing the poorest among us to pay. And losing rural air service is a major loss to future economic growth."

Pennsylvania airports that would be affected by the bill are those in Bradford, Johnstown and Oil City/Franklin.

The U.S. Transportation Department pilot program would require airports to pay 10 percent of the federal Essential Air Service subsidy for four years. It would only select one airport in each of 10 states, and would only apply to small airports located within 100 miles of a larger airline hub.

The airports -- and the surrounding communities that govern them -- can appeal their selection if they can show they cannot afford the 10 percent co-pay.

Both the House and the Senate originally rejected the pilot program, but it was quietly added back into an aviation compromise bill that passed the House late last week. It is not expected to prompt much opposition or controversy when the Senate takes up the entire bill -- which could happen by the week's end.

A Senate Commerce and Transportation Committee aide defended the bill as in "response to concerns about the rapidly increasing cost of the EAS program and the contention that passengers in communities close to airport hubs may not need the local service."

But for the Venango County Regional Airport, in Peterson's district in northwestern Pennsylvania, complying could all but certainly mean cutting back on its three daily flights to Pittsburgh -- if it could afford to offer commercial service at all, said airport manager Otho Bell.

Venango's annual contribution to the subsidy would be $87,000 -- more than half of its $150,000 operating budget, Bell said. Last year, 3,700 passengers flew out of Venango, compared with more than 10,000 annually before the travel industry slump spawned by the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

But a recent marketing campaign -- costing the airport $6,700 -- to lure locals back to the skies seems to be taking off, Bell said. Nearly 400 passengers flew from Venango in October -- a 25 percent surge from previous months.

"People here want to fly," Bell said yesterday. "They don't want to drive to Pittsburgh -- it takes an hour and a half. And in the wintertime you can't even do that.

"I just don't see any reason to force our city to drive to access the national air transportation system, which is supposed to be there for everybody," Bell said.

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