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Hagerstown's air subsidy in danger in FAA funding battle

July 22, 2011|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com
  • A Cape Air Cessna 402 arrives at Hagerstown Regional Airport from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. A federal subsidy for Hagerstown Regional Airport is at risk in a tug of war that appeared certain to shut down parts of the Federal Aviation Administration and temporarily put nearly 4,000 people out of work.
Herald-Mail file photo

A federal subsidy for Hagerstown Regional Airport is at risk in a tug of war that appeared certain to shut down parts of the Federal Aviation Administration and temporarily put nearly 4,000 people out of work.

Congress failed Friday to work out a partisan dispute over legislation to temporarily extend the FAA's operating authority, according to the Associated Press. Portions of the FAA were expected to close at midnight.

The Hagerstown subsidy — more than $1.2 million — pays for Cape Air to fly back and forth to Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

It comes to Hagerstown through the Essential Air Service program, designed to help rural areas far from metropolitan airports.

The EAS program has been dragged into a debate over a provision, favored by House Republicans, to make it more difficult for airline and railroad workers to unionize, the AP reported.

The AP reported that Obama administration officials have said the shutdown won't affect air safety. Air-traffic controllers have been classified as essential and will remain on the job. But airlines will lose the authority to collect about $200 million a week in ticket taxes that go into a trust fund that pays for FAA programs.

The House and Senate favor different versions of the FAA bill, but both are backing changes to the $200 million Essential Air Service that could jeopardize Hagerstown's eligibility.

Each chamber's version would only accept airports at least 90 miles from a major airport, an amendment introduced by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

For years, the cutoff has been 70 miles.

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

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

If the cutoff is raised to 90 miles, that could eliminate 10 small airports nationwide, including Hagerstown, from getting the subsidy.

The House also wants to cap subsidies at $1,000 per passenger, which affecting three additional small airports.

Although the House and Senate currently agree on the 90-mile threshold, "it's still an open question," said Jeff Urbanchuk, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa.

Shuster has an EAS-subsidized airport in his district.

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.

Maryland's Democratic senators, Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, released a statement Friday calling for an immediate agreement on FAA funding and programs.

"This shut down will be unprecedented and it will severely harm our economy and everyone who depends on a thriving aviation system," Cardin said in the statement. "It also is a clear attack on federal employees who manage our nation's aviation and could have serious safety implications for air travelers."

The senators' statement said the FAA has had 19 short-term authorization extensions since 2007, and none had any policy changes to FAA programs, until now.

They said they've been working on a compromise that would let Hagerstown continue to be in the EAS program.

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