Airport subsidy 1

A crew for Southern Airways Express walks to their aircraft on the tarmac for a recent flight from the Lancaster Airport.

THE ISSUE

Essential Air Service is a federal program that makes it feasible for small commuter airlines to offer inexpensive flights out of rural community airports. One example: Mississippi-based Southern Airways Express receives $2.5 million annually to operate commercial service out of Lancaster Airport. Southern’s offerings include three weekday flights to Pittsburgh and two to Baltimore, but, as Chad Umble reported in last weekend’s Sunday LNP, its subsidy — and thus its flights out of Lancaster Airport — could end next year.

That the Essential Air Service program is even available at Lancaster Airport is a head-scratcher.

And the ways in which airport officials are trying to keep the little-used service alive are even more confounding.

First, some background and history from Umble’s Sunday article:

Essential Air Service was launched by the U.S. government in 1978 as a way to keep airlines from ignoring small, rural markets once the industry was deregulated. It was only supposed to last a decade, but the program became permanent in 1996. This fiscal year, it’s paying out $324 million to 173 community airports. A little more than half that amount is from taxpayer funds, which rankles some (but not all) Republicans.

Lancaster Airport has been in the Essential Air Service program since 2004. It wasn’t actually eligible to be part of the program, but the late Sen. Arlen Specter (then a Republican), with some help from then-Congressman Joe Pitts (also a Republican), came up with a creative interpretation of the distance between Lancaster and Philadelphia in order to “fit” Lancaster Airport into the federal guidelines. (Years later, Pitts withdrew his support for the program, indicating that market forces should determine the fate of commercial airline service.)

So the subsidy was granted and has continued since then — even though Lancaster Airport still doesn’t technically qualify. The program’s guidelines prohibit the per-passenger subsidy from exceeding $200. Also, qualifying airports can’t be less than 70 miles from a major airline hub or less than 40 miles from a medium-sized hub. However, as Umble notes: “Based on a 2018 passenger count of 10,788, the per-passenger subsidy (at Lancaster Airport) was $232, and Harrisburg International Airport, which is considered a medium-sized hub, is 32 miles from Lancaster Airport.”

So, the head-scratcher: Lancaster Airport shouldn’t even qualify to receive this federal money.

It gets more perplexing. Umble reports that, following greater scrutiny of Lancaster Airport’s qualifications, it is being asked by the U.S. Department of Transportation to come up with $100,000 to $200,000 in local matching funds in order to maintain the program.

We are utterly against that idea.

Using local taxpayer dollars to supplement a program that already receives more than half of its funding from federal tax dollars? All so an average of 30 people a day can have cheap flights to Baltimore and Pittsburgh?

No thanks.

Local officials agree with us.

“We appreciate the airport as an asset to Lancaster County, but it is not possible for the city to provide resources to subsidize its operations,” Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace said in a statement to LNP.

And all three county commissioners (two Republicans and a Democrat) are against the idea of providing matching funds. “I oppose local taxpayers being leveraged by a wrong-headed federal policy,” Democratic Commissioner Craig Lehman told Umble.

We applaud their firm stances.

Ultimately, neither Lancaster Airport nor the people of Lancaster County will be affected greatly if the airport loses the Essential Air Service program. Lancaster Airport director David Eberly told Umble that Lancaster Airport would be OK financially if it was just a general aviation airport.

Southern Airways Express contributes about $200,000 of the airport’s $3 million annual budget. Eberly notes that its commercial flights only represent about 2% of the nearly 100,000 annual takeoffs and landings.

“Lancaster Airport would still be a busy place because it is home to more than 20 other businesses employing more than 200 people,” Umble wrote. “That includes charter companies, flight instruction schools and car rental companies.”

That seems fine by us.

President Donald Trump proposed to eliminate Essential Air Service in 2017 and, when that didn’t materialize, asked for major cuts in 2018 and this year. Others in Congress share the president’s view.

“Essential Air Service is perhaps the least essential program in the entire government,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock of California, when he proposed to defund the program in early 2018.

But McClintock’s amendment, Umble wrote, “failed by a vote of 293 to 113, with U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker joining 114 other Republicans in voting against it. Smucker ... has been supportive of the subsidy, saying it is an economic driver for the area.”

We appreciate Smucker having his constituents in mind, but we believe this is a poor use of federal taxpayer funds. We’d like to see Smucker and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey side with Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, who has expressed a desire to eliminate Essential Air Service.

When spending tax dollars, it’s long past time for bold new thinking on transportation.

We’d like, for example, to see greater consideration of rail travel. We should study the idea of a rail station at Harrisburg International Airport, connecting outward to Lancaster and other hubs. That could be a game-changer for the region.

Also, how long will the United States lag behind other countries in high-speed rail service?

The Incline website noted in January that it takes more than seven hours for an Amtrak train to get from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. By car, it’s five to five-and-a-half hours.

Gov. Tom Wolf's spokesman, J.J. Abbott, told The Incline that the governor believes high-speed rail — perhaps even hyperloop — could increase employment, educational, tourism and economic opportunities across the state.

We must start thinking outside the box on transportation. When we spend, it must be purposeful and forward-looking. We cannot continue to fund outmoded and inefficient programs.