Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011 | 10:22 a.m.
The Senate is kicking off business for the 112th Congress with an effort to reauthorize funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, with a bill that's likely the best chance to keep Nevada’s rural air service up in the air.
The program reauthorizes the Essential Air Services program that supplements commercial air services to rural areas that might otherwise be on the chopping block.
Take towns like Ely, where the airport at Yelland Field serves as a connection hub for an otherwise isolated part of the state.
Yelland Field is serviced by just one airline, Great Lakes Airlines, which connects Ely to Denver and Moab, Utah. It’s also the one Nevada airport that relies on Essential Air Service subsidies, a program to shore up commercial air service to smaller communities. The $1.75 million annual EAS subsidy to Ely goes to cover costs lost as a result of low traffic and keep prices affordable -- but that rate expires in 2012.
Without a reauthorization, that money is somewhat in jeopardy. House Republicans all voted to give House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin authority to set a budget ceiling absent an approval vote, and Ryan has indicated he is in favor of zeroing out the EAS program -- a change estimated to save about $150 million.
On the other hand, Republican Transportation Committee chairman John Mica has said passing the FAA re-authorization is a “#1 priority.”
That doesn’t mean there’s been much comment on the details though. Anti-spending activists have been urging for the program to be cut, as a way of saving funds that could be going to trim down the deficit.
“The (Non)-Essential Air Service has outlived its usefulness and is another reason why the country has a $14 trillion national debt,” said Citizens Against Government Waste President Tom Schatz in a statement.
But supporters of the program counter that stripping away airport funding isn’t going to help rural areas work their way out the recession. “Rural America's looking for economic development, and you can't do it without air service,” Nevada Senator Harry Reid said in a press conference Monday. “Airports themselves create jobs ... people don’t make location decisions about industry based on going someplace in a bicycle or a car. They have to fly in.”
Supporters of the FAA overhaul say the bill is “virtually all paid for” through fees and levies that are already being paid by travelers every time they purchase a ticket for air travel.
Staff for Nevada Rep. Dean Heller, a vocal advocate for spending cuts and whose district includes Ely, didn’t return requests for comment Monday.
The bill is also putting billions over the next two years toward improving the country’s air traffic control system, converting it to a satellite-based, instead of radar-based, model to ensure greater accuracy of reading an ensure better safety of passengers.
The bill is also expected to increase cargo airline capacity, and sustain airports’ current ability to handle commercial traffic, preserving about 280,000 jobs nationally, supports estimate, and 20,000 at Las Vegas’ McCarran airport alone.
“Improving air travel will help more job creation and economic activity at these major hubs,” Reid said, rattling off figures that put the economic impact of McCarran airport at about $25 billion annually, and the impact of Reno-Tahoe airport, Nevada’s second largest, at about $3.5 billion.
Nevada is losing out with this bill in one regard. Reid abandoned a provision from previous iterations of the bill that would have given Western states more direct flights to Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C. -- a fight he said he dropped in order to avoid a stalemate similar to that which stymie passage of the bill last year.
The addition of 10 slots for flights originating in Western state directly to the nation’s capital would have eased travel between the Washington and the fastest-growing region of the country, population-wise. Reid did not rule out the possibility that a senator might try to reinsert the provision by amendment.
The process of this bill will be the first test for the new Senate rules, which don’t go so far as to eliminate the filibuster, but are in effect, a promise that the two parties will play nice with each other. So far, so good: Republicans did not insist upon a filibuster-proof majority to take up consideration of the bill, and Reid’s allowing a fully open amendment process.