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Proposed cut to aviation program may hurt rural Alaskans

By Bonney Bowman 5:58 PM April 19, 2017

Like several presidents before him, President Donald Trump would like to cut the Essential Air Service, according to his recently proposed budget, which eliminates the $175 million program. It’s raising concern in Alaska, where 62 communities rely on the EAS for affordable flights.

Grant Aviation CFO Rob Kelley says aviation is the only way to move people and goods in and out of many Alaska villages. Grant has 18 EAS contracts to communities in Southwest and the Aleutian Islands. He hears about it when those flights are delayed.

“We’ll get the calls, ‘I’m out of diapers! I need diapers!'” Said Kelley. “If these planes weren’t bringing the mail to them, they don’t have any groceries, they don’t have any diapers, they don’t have any medicine, so, it really is essential.”

John Binder, deputy commissioner of aviation for the Alaska Department of Transportation, says of the $175 million program, Alaska receives about $21 million in subsidies. That’s only about 25% of the total cost, despite having the highest number of subsidized flights.

“We’re getting more bang for the buck on that program than other states are,” said Binder.

Eighty-two percent of Alaska communities are not on the road system, according to Binder. Some have criticized the EAS as a waste of money because, for the most part in the Lower 48, people can drive to larger hub airports and don’t rely on the flights covered by the EAS. But in Alaska, many people don’t have the option of driving to a bigger airport– or a store– or a hospital.

“You take away aviation and really you take away the ability of that community to survive,” said Binder.

Others have criticized the EAS as a way for airlines to make money, something Kelley refutes.

“I think our margin is about a third of what we would normally make,” he said of their EAS flights, but says they do it because it’s an important service. “You can underline the word essential because it is essential.”

Alaska’s Congressional Delegation has voiced its support for the EAS. Senator Lisa Murkowski said if the cost to fly to the villages goes up, the cost for everything else there will go up, as well, making it even more difficult for the people who call those villages home.

Senator Dan Sullivan called the EAS “critical” to Alaska’s villages.  saying, “I will continue to advocate for it as a member of the Senate Commerce Committee. Alaskans should know that the recent White House budget proposal is simply that — a proposal. Congress holds the power of the purse, and is the body that sets funding levels.” Sullivan also joined 19 of his Senate colleagues in sending a

“I will continue to advocate for it as a member of the Senate Commerce Committee,” Sullivan said. “Alaskans should know that the recent White House budget proposal is simply that: a proposal. Congress holds the power of the purse and is the body that sets funding levels.”

Sullivan also joined 19 of his Senate colleagues in sending a bipartisan letter to the head of the Appropriations Committee asking for continued funding of the EAS.

When asked if the state could cover the cost of Alaska’s EAS subsidies, Binder said not at this time, given the state’s fiscal challenges.

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