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Congressman Tom McClintock

Representing the 4th District of California

Amendment to End Taxpayer Subsidy of Essential Air Service

April 27, 2018
Amendment to End Taxpayer Subsidy of Essential Air Service
Congressman Tom McClintock
April 27, 2018
Mr. Chairman:
I have offered this amendment whenever the opportunity has presented itself, because it tests whether there is any program in the federal budget that Congress can bear to cut.
Essential Air Service is perhaps the least essential program in the entire government.  It is a direct subsidy paid to airline companies to fly empty and near-empty planes from small airports to regional hubs.  This was supposed to be a temporary program to allow local communities and airports to adjust to airline de-regulation in 1978 and instead has grown to include 173 airports in a program that has doubled in cost in the last decade.  
I want to emphasize that this program has nothing to do with emergency medical evacuations.  It solely subsidizes regular, scheduled, commercial service that is so seldom used that it cannot support itself.  
Why can’t it?  In many cases, the small airports in the program are less than an hour’s drive from regional airports.  Essential Air Service flights are flown out of Merced airport, near my district in the Sierra Nevada of California.  Yet Merced is less than an hour’s drive from Fresno Airport offering scheduled flights throughout the West.  Subsidized service is available from Lancaster Pennsylvania, just 31 miles from Harrisburg International Airport.  Subsidized flights from Pueblo, Colorado are just a 45-minute drive from Colorado Springs Airport.  And on and on…
There are supposed to be $200 per passenger caps on the subsidy and a minimum of ten passengers per day, yet every request to waive these requirements has been granted.  Every one.  Per passenger subsidies on some flights are now nearly $1,000 per passenger.  By comparison, you can charter a small plane for around $150 to $200 an hour.  
Over the next five years, this program will cost taxpayers nearly one billion dollars in direct appropriations, which this amendment would cease.  The program also gets another $100 million a year from overflight fees that would otherwise be available to fund high priorities in the aviation system, like 21st Century air traffic control technology.
The argument for abolishing this program is simple: if a route cannot generate enough passengers to support its costs, the passengers themselves are telling us that it is not worth the money to them.  Perhaps we should listen to them.
Our country is drowning in debt.  It now costs us $475 billion a year just to pay interest costs on the $21 trillion we have already borrowed.  Debt and taxes are driven by one thing only: spending.  In the last ten years, inflation and population combined have grown 26 per cent.  Revenues have more than kept pace, growing 29 percent in the same period.  Spending has grown 46 percent and this program has doubled.
If we don’t get control of spending soon, our nation could enter a debt spiral that threatens its future.  And the Orwellian-named “Essential” Air Service is a prime example of programs that we just can’t afford. 
The most common argument we hear in its support is that it is essential to remote communities like those in Alaska.  This program subsidizes 61 small communities in a state with 259 airports.   That means there are roughly 200 airports and 350 local communities in Alaska that seem to do just fine without Essential Air Service.  
If Alaska – or any state – believes that air service should be subsidized within their state, they certainly have the ability to do it themselves.  So do the individual towns.  
The states choose not to pay for the service.  The local communities choose not to pay for the service.  Most importantly, the passengers themselves choose not to pay the actual cost of the service.  Perhaps, as we approach a trillion-dollar annual deficit, we should consider choosing not to pay for it either.
We hear that it helps prop up small airports and the small airlines that service them.  Yes, when you hand somebody wads of cash, that person does very well.  The problem is, the people you took that cash from do very poorly to exactly the same extent.
A $275 million program out of a $4 trillion federal budget seems like a drop in the bucket, and I agree we’re not going to balance a trillion dollar annual deficit just by cutting programs like this.  But if we can’t end this 40-year old temporary program that has doubled in cost in the last ten years – the kindest and easiest cut of all – then I fear we will never summon the courage to get our budget back to balance before we bankrupt our country.