Billings Gazette: Senate votes to retain funding for Essential Air Service

When Congressional budget hawks look to attack, the federally subsidized Essential Air Service is usually a sitting duck.

The program responsible for connecting small rural communities with airports that have commercial fight connections always seems at risk of having its funding plucked. Cheap flights to Billings from Glasgow, Glendive, Havre, Wolf Point and Sidney depend on EAS. The program also connects airports in Butte and West Yellowstone to Salt Lake City.

In 2015, Montana passengers boarded Cape Air, the EAS provider for rural Eastern Montana airports, 43,663 times.

The funding comes from federal general funds and fees collected from commercial airlines, which have subsidized rural flights since being deregulated 30 years ago.

The Senate voted Thursday to put EAS back in the air for another year, giving it $150 million to keep it flying. The political turbulence is likely to come in June when the House takes up the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill, which includes EAS.

“Essential Air Service connects Montana communities and keeps our economy moving forward,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. “These flights are critical to folks in Eastern Montana as they provide quick access to larger airports.”

The amount of funding is about $5 million less than last year’s amount. Three years ago, Senate Republicans tried to cut EAS, but were in the minority. That wasn’t the case this year with Republicans in the majority and lawmakers from rural states represented on the committees responsible for funding EAS.

“It doesn’t hurt that the makeup of the Commerce Committee included rural members who appreciate Sen. Daines’ position,” said Marcie Kinzel, a Daines spokesman. “Members include: Chairman Thune, Gardner, Sullivan, Moran, and Fischer.”

A Republican, Sen. John Thune, is from South Dakota and oversees the authorization side of the THUD bill. Daines also serves on the Senate Committee on Appropriations, which funds EAS. Tester serves on Appropriations.

The per-passenger subsidy in Eastern Montana is roughly $500.

The THUD bill also provided money to improve West Yellowstone Airport, and grant funding for small community airport development.

Pipeline safety funding was also part of the grab bag bill. The bill also included funding for drone research at Montana State University, according to Daines.

And, the bill set aside money to improve safety at Baker Municipal Airport because of military flights from the Powder River Training Complex, a four- state Air Force bomber training area that includes Eastern Montana.