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Trump’s Budget Would Eliminate Subsidies For Rural Airports

Essential Air Service Program May Be Eliminated

Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo

A program that provides federal subsidies to airlines that serve rural airports may be cut under President Donald Trump’s budget proposal.

The $175 million Essential Air Service (EAS) program is among those that would be eliminated under the proposed 2018 federal budget. The program was put in place to guarantee airline carriers would serve smaller, rural communities after their deregulation in 1978.

The Rhinelander and Chippewa Valley airports are among communities served through the program. Chippewa Valley Regional Airport Director Charity Zich said United Airlines provides daily flights from the region to Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

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“The airport is relied on by many corporate and general aviation users beyond just the scheduled airline service. The airport wouldn’t be closing,” Zich said. “We’d still be here no matter what happens to airline passenger service.”

Zich said a small percentage of passenger planes make up the roughly 23,000 that use the airport each year — about 600 in 2016. But Zich said the EAS program is vital for rural communities competing in a global economy. Around 30 percent of the airports in the country rely on the user-fee funded program to support airline service in 173 communities across 36 states.

Rhinelander/Oneida County Airport Director Joe Brauer agreed the program represents an investment in rural America. Brauer said SkyWest Airlines began offering daily flights in 2013 from Rhinelander to Minneapolis.

“We believe strongly that our community can support air service, even without the Essential Air Service program,” Brauer said.

Mesaba Airlines discontinued service to Rhinelander in 2011. At that time, the number of passengers using the airport dropped from around 52,000 to 22,000. Brauer said the program has benefited the airport since 2011, and passengers have been increasing as the economy has improved.

Trump’s budget states flights through the program aren’t full and have high subsidy costs per passenger. Brauer said the subsidy they receive per passenger has dropped by more than 70 percent as the number of passengers has almost doubled in the last five years to 41,579 last year.

Representatives with United Airlines and SkyWest Airlines did not immediately return requests for comment.

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