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House bill threatens rural airports

Cut in US subsidy would be costly

By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / February 19, 2011

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Six rural New England airports could be at risk of losing commercial air service if a bill passes that would phase out federal funding for airlines operating in underserved communities.

Airports in Lebanon, N.H., Rutland, Vt., and four airports in Maine — in Augusta, Bar Harbor, Presque Isle, and Rockland — would be affected by the legislation, which was approved by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee this week.

The proposed Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill would eliminate most of the $200 million Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes airlines serving 155 rural communities. Funding for airports in Alaska would be maintained.

“The federal government must do more with less, and this bill does just that by requiring the FAA to identify savings in a manner that does not negatively impact aviation safety,’’ committee chairman John L. Mica, Republican of Florida, said in a statement.

Cape Air, which serves 17 communities in the program, including four in New England and four in New York, would be hit particularly hard. Without the millions of dollars in subsidies the program provides, the Hyannis-based carrier would have to trim or eliminate its service at these airports, potentially leaving some without a commercial airline.

“For a lot of these communities that we serve, the EAS program is a lifeline,’’ said Andrew Bonney, vice president of planning for Cape Air.

Passengers at the Knox County Regional Airport outside Rockland, Maine, served by Cape Air, would probably see fares to Boston double, to about $400 round trip, if the $1.5 million biennial subsidy is eliminated, said airport manager Jeff Northgraves.

“It would be devastating for the community, the county, and the communities around this county, and the economic growth of the area,’’ he said.

None of the six New England airports served by the federal program would be affected by the Senate’s version of the FAA reauthorization bill, which only eliminates funding at airports that are within 90 miles of a large airport or serve less than 10 passengers a day.

Material from the Associated Press is included in this report. Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.