EAS Defense: Service is paid for by users, benefits everyone: airport manager

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Houghton County Memorial Airport Manager Dennis Hext talks about the need for the Essential Air Service program during the County Board meeting Tuesday.

HOUGHTON — In the face of the elimination of the Essential Air Service program called for in the Trump administration’s budget proposal, Houghton County Airport Manager Dennis Hext defended the program at Tuesday’s County Board meeting.

The federal program is used to maintain small levels of scheduled air service at rural airports where carriers would not otherwise participate. Houghton entered the Essential Air Service program in 2010 after previous carrier Mesaba left the market. President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal calls for eliminating the program, which received $283 million in 2016. U.S. Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow and U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman have stated their support for continuing EAS.

“It’s always been under attack whenever the budget comes out, and in the past it’s always had strong support, but with the administration we have in there right now, who knows?” Hext said.

Of that money, $175 million came from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which collects excise taxes from flying and fuel taxes. The rest comes from overflight costs, paid by international carriers who fly over U.S. airspace.

“If you never go to an airport, if you never use it, you’re not paying for this program, but you’re still benefitting, because having commercial service in your community, the trickle-down from that is huge,” Hext said.

Nine of the 19 commercial air service airports are under the EAS program, Hext said. If the program is shut down, Houghton County airport would become a general aviation airport, which primarily serves private aircraft and small charter operations, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Hext estimated seven of the current 97 jobs at the airport would remain if it became a general aviation airport.

Losing EAS would cause the airport to fall below the 10,000-passenger threshold required to receive $1 million under the Airport Improvement Program, which funds surface and equipment repair; instead, it would get $150,000, Hext said.

“For us, almost 60 percent of our revenue stream comes from having SkyWest on the field and having commercial service … (I)t’s very important to us, very important to the community,” he said.