Billings Gazette: Trump proposes gutting rural flight program in Montana

The Trump administration proposed Thursday that as part of its new budget it would eliminate federal subsidies for flights from Billings to five rural communities in Eastern Montana.

The cuts would target the 39-year-old Essential Air Service, which subsidizes Cape Air flights from Billings to Glasgow, Glendive, Havre, Wolf Point and Sidney.

Without the program, Cape Air would unlikely be able to afford to continue operating the service, which peaked during the Bakken boom earlier this decade. The program has bipartisan support from Montana’s two senators.

In 2016, at least 37,106 passengers boarded subsidized Cape Air flights in Montana, down 15 percent from the previous year, according to the Montana Department of Transportation. Demand for the service fell with the price of oil because of lighter drilling activity in the Bakken shale fields.

The flights cost about $100 roundtrip and would likely be more than $500 without the subsidy. Cape Air took over the Essential Air program in Montana in 2013. 

Essential Air has been targeted for cuts several times before, most recently in 2015. It’s popular with rural lawmakers, whose constituents are often cut off from regular air service.

U.S. Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., both fought against cuts to the program two years ago, as did former U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont.

“In my conversations with (Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao), I have consistently prioritized the importance of Essential Air Service to rural Montana. We need to make government more efficient and effective without diminishing key capacities and programs and disconnecting rural communities,” Daines said Thursday in a prepared statement.

Added Tester, in a statement, “The elimination of the Essential Air Service will have serious economic consequences on eastern Montana. These flights have been crucial in transporting folks to and from rural communities and providing access for small businesses, commerce, and health care.”

The Republican Trump administration has targeted cuts at several federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior and Forest Service, to pay for a $54 billion increase in military spending.

At $175 million, Essential Air Service represents a tiny fraction of federal spending.

The administration’s budget also includes $2 billion for a down payment on a southern border wall, a key campaign promise from Trump aimed at curbing illegal immigration.

Congress has the ultimate authority to pass a budget, and lawmakers in both parties have raised concerns about the cuts contained in Trump’s proposal.