Possible subsidy cut would hurt Hagerstown Regional Airport

February 18, 2011|By ANDREW SCHOTZ |

The federal program that provides Hagerstown Regional Airport with a $1.2 million annual subsidy for air service could be at risk.

The local airport has relied on federal Essential Air Service funding since the program's inception in 1978. The $200 million national program subsidizes air service to and from communities far from large airports.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate approved a Federal Aviation Administration budget with a new parameter for the EAS program that would eliminate Hagerstown.

On Wednesday, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted to phase out EAS funding during the four-year life of the FAA bill.

But there still could be hope for the program before the full House votes, according to Jeff Urbanchuk, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa.

In committee, Shuster proposed an amendment to restore EAS funding, then withdrew it when the chairman offered to work on an agreement, Urbanchuk said.

It remains to be seen what that compromise might be. Urbanchuk said Shuster — who has an EAS-subsidized airport in his district — is prepared to make his amendment again on the House floor.

Using the subsidy, a series of carriers have served Hagerstown.

EAS money now pays for Cape Air to fly between Hagerstown and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Hagerstown has no other commercial service. Allegiant Air stopped its service between Hagerstown and Orlando-Sanford Regional Airport in Florida last July.

Phil Ridenour, who was appointed director of the Hagerstown Regional Airport on Tuesday, was unsure Friday about the chances for the continuation of EAS funding.

After finding out about the Senate amendment in a story posted on The Herald-Mail's website on Thursday night, Ridenour contacted the offices of Maryland's U.S. Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, two Democrats who have fought for the EAS program.

Cardin spokeswoman Sue Walitsky and Lisa Wright, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md., weren't sure  Friday where EAS funding stood in the House.

Walitsky said there might be a chance to revive the EAS program during negotiations between the House and Senate if they pass different versions of the FAA bill.

But under the current House and Senate versions, Hagerstown would lose EAS funding, sooner or later.

The EAS program has been scrutinized in recent years as critics have called it a waste of money with little benefit, while proponents have said the local air service is critical for small communities.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Az., introduced an amendment on Thursday to eliminate the EAS program entirely, but it was defeated.

However, an amendment by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that was approved Thursday would have the same effect for Hagerstown.

The Coburn amendment would only let airports at least 90 miles from another airport get EAS funding. The current cutoff is 70 miles.

Hagerstown is 57 miles from Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia by one calculation and about 64 miles by another standard.

But airport supporters have successfully argued that a commonly traveled path is 78 miles, enabling Hagerstown to annually get a waiver and receive the subsidy.

The Associated Press reported that a second Coburn amendment that was also approved would cancel subsidies for airports that average fewer than 10 passengers a day.

From Oct. 1, 2010, to Sept. 30, 2011, Cape Air is scheduled to receive $1.2 million to provide 28 nonstop round-trip flights per week between Hagerstown and BWI.

The same agreement will give Cape Air nearly $1.4 million to provide 35 nonstop round-trip flights per week between Lancaster, Pa., and BWI.

For the first 11 months of 2010, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 20,426 people flew to or from Hagerstown.

Around the time Allegiant left, ridership from Hagerstown dropped significantly, from 1,429 in June, to 935 in July and 297 in August.

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