In 1978, when the airline industry was deregulated and airlines wanted to pull out of small markets to focus on profitable large airports, the Essential Air Service program of subsidies was created to preserve commercial service to small, rural communities. Since then, presidents have seen EAS as an easy budget cut that won’t anger too many voters.
Until now, every time EAS has been on the chopping block, lawmakers representing rural areas, communities that depend upon small airports, and the airlines that serve those airports have wielded enough clout to keep the program alive. A recent short-term funding bill preserved the program until Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.
But Donald Trump has proposed eliminating the subsidy, which brings $3.58 million annually to the Cortez Municipal Airport. Without the subsidy, Cortez likely would have no commercial flights.
EAS-supported airports tend to be in deep-red towns in strongly conservative states; they are home to Trump voters and are represented by Republican congressional representatives. This is Trump’s “base,” although not the focus of his interest. Simply put, not enough money flows through these towns, either to support an airport without assistance or to hold the president’s attention.
He might be surprised to learn how often energy-company executives fly to those EAS airports, some of which are a long way from anywhere. He might also be surprised to learn that flights to and from EAS airports like Cortez often are full.
While Durango might be happy to have the passengers who now use the Cortez airport, the gain there would be small, while the cost to Cortez of losing its air service would be considerable. In the first quarter of 2017, Cortez saw a monthly average of 650 enplaned passengers. Not having commercial air service is like not having a hospital or a grocery store. The loss of EAS can severely limit the growth of a community and render it a different kind of town, a backwater, a flyover zone.
Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton understand the issue. We hope they’ll continue to help identify cuts that won’t harm small-town economies. The issue is bigger than not being able to fly out of Cortez; the problem is that no one could buy a ticket to fly in. That sure seems like an essential service.