Service to small airports in jeopardy

By Gary Mitchell

Air service to Clovis and other similar-sized communities was jeopardized recently by potential congressional action.
A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman said Bingaman and fellow senators beat back an initiative last week that would have forced some of New Mexico’s communities that take part in the Essential Air Service (EAS) program — including Clovis — to pay to participate in the program.
“Sen. Bingaman was successful in taking out the language that would force smaller communities to pay to keep their air service,” said Bingaman spokesman Felipe Mendoza.
Essential Air Service is a federal program that makes possible low-cost, reliable air service to smaller communities. Currently, five New Mexico communities take part in the EAS program — Alamogordo, Carlsbad, Clovis, Hobbs and Silver City.
The program was created by Congress in 1978 to ensure small, mostly rural communities could retain commercial air service after the airline industry was deregulated.
“We knew this was coming,” said Steve Summers, Clovis Municipal Airport manager.
Under the EAS program, commuter airlines may apply for a subsidy to offset the cost to consumers of flying to participating communities.
But the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Bill, which the full Senate approved Thursday, would have fundamentally changed the program by requiring that some communities — those within 100 miles of so-called “hub” airports — to share in the cost of subsidy (as much as 10 percent).
“It would be devastating to Clovis to come up with $100,000-plus to subsidize the airline,” Summers said. “Mayor (David) Lansford sent letters to all our congressmen to see what could be done. It would be devastating if we were to lose our air service.”
Bingaman presented an amendment to the bill, which was approved by the Senate, to strike the requirement that those communities pay a portion of the subsidy.
“This proposal to force communities to pay to take part in the EAS program was wrongheaded,” the senator said. “Small communities are already facing depressed economies and declining tax revenues. Requiring them to spend more to keep their air service would have exacerbated the situation. I’m pleased my colleagues in the Senate agreed this wasn’t far.”
A similar measure was passed in the House of Representatives, said Glen Loveland, a spokesman in Rep. Tom Udall’s office.
“Congressman Udall will be working with Republican Rep. Jerry Moran of Kansas to offer an amendment to get the EAS funding up to the level where it needs to be,” Loveland said. “We don’t want Clovis to lose its airport. The House is also working on the House FFA Reauthorization Bill. We had a big victory there. We increased it from $50 million to $65 million, so that’s good news.”
Mesa Airlines receives an annual subsidy of $1.1 million through the Essential Air Service program to provide service to Clovis, Loveland said.
“I have flown in to the Clovis Municipal Airport many times when I have scheduled town hall meetings there,” Udall said. “Cutting the funding for EAS would have serious consequences for Curry County and many other communities in New Mexico. I will insist on full funding for the EAS program.”