Friday, July 22, 2011 | 10:05 p.m.
House Transportation Committee leaders spent Friday excoriating their counterparts in the Senate for objecting to a cost-saving provision that likely would have crippled commercial service to Ely’s airport, holding them responsible for thousands of FAA employees who were furloughed tonight.
But of the approximately 4,000 Federal Aviation Administration officials who will go without checks, from 12:01 Saturday until whenever the standoff over the Transportation Department’s Essential Air Service is resolved, only one works in Nevada.
The unfortunate employee is based in Las Vegas, but the FAA wouldn’t provide any more details. The furlough does not affect essential personnel, a category that includes air traffic controllers and inspectors.
Ely’s government-sponsored passenger flight service, by comparison, underwrites the salary of five part-time employees, according to manager Mike Coster, who spoke with the Sun earlier this week.
Though the airport serves the U.S. Air Force and private operators, the loss of the federal subsidy for commercial service would be so significant that it could cripple it entirely — in which case those five employees would lose their jobs and the surrounding Ely economy would experience an unwelcome dip.
That suggests that Sen. Harry Reid — who does not chair the Senate’s Transportation committee but certainly has some sway among Senate Democrats — probably won’t be budging on his protective stance any time soon.
The House provision in question is one that would cap per-passenger spending on rural airports served by the EAS program at $1,000 — a level House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica calls “reasonable.”
“In light of the nation’s pending financial disaster and soaring deficits, they couldn’t find a way to cut even a few million dollars by accepting this minor request to reduce outlandish subsidies,” he said Friday, after it became clear that the impasse between the House and Senate wouldn’t be resolved before the shutdown deadline.
But EAS subsidies aren’t given out on a per-passenger basis. The point of the program is to subsidize rural airports that are deemed necessary to keep connected where the number of passengers isn’t high enough to be commercially profitable. Ely, being the most remote location on the list of recipients in the lower 48 states, has the highest subsidy-per-head: carrier Great Lakes’ $1.8 million annual subsidy translates into $3,720 per passenger. (Tickets in and out of the Ely airport, incidentally, run $69 to $149.)
That’s considering slightly old numbers, though. On May 15, Great Lakes rejiggered its flight map, pitching its Ely-to-Denver route for Ely-to-Las Vegas, which has proven to be much more popular, especially with the business set that come for the mines and energy projects.
In the airline’s first full month offering the new route, airline official James Adams said, ridership doubled, which means the per-passenger cost has actually already been halved.
Mica presented his bill in the House under a closed rule, so Nevada members of the House were not able to offer amendments to change the EAS language to protect the Ely airport.
Rep. Joe Heck voted for the legislation, despite the cuts, while Rep. Shelley Berkley voted against it, citing “pulling the rug out from under communities like Ely” among her concerns.
“I am deeply disappointed in this effort by Washington Republicans to target rural Nevada,” she said.
Neither Berkley nor Heck represent the 2nd District; that future occupant of seat will be determined in a September special election between Republican Mark Amodei and Democrat Kate Marshall. Marshall has campaigned on the Ely airport issue in the days since it arose as a contentious point in the House’s FAA authorization bill this week.
In the Senate, Transportation Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller accused Mica of negotiating a mutually agreeable FAA bill “in bad faith”.
House Republicans, meanwhile, have accused senators of being hypocritically miserly, pointing out that the Senate bill would actually cut funding, in the long-term, for the very same airports they are trying to protect.
“This is Exhibit A when it comes to wasteful spending, and if the Senate backs away from its own easy reforms like this, how is it ever going to handle the hard cuts?” asked House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Tom Petri. “It is astounding that the Senate is willing to throw the FAA into chaos in order to protect huge subsidies for a handful of passengers unwilling to drive 90 miles or less to a hub airport.”
While it’s true that many airports that are home to airlines receiving EAS subsidies to operate exist within 90 miles of the nearest alternate hub, that’s not the case across the board — and certainly not for Ely.
Ely is 240 miles from the next-closest non-EAS subsidized airport: McCarran International in Las Vegas.
The proposed change — which lawmakers will have to huddle over when they get back from the weekend — would save $4.1 million by partially eliminating passenger subsidies at Ely, Alamogordo/Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, and in Glendive, Mont. It would also limit eligibility to communities located 90 miles or more from a large or medium hub airport, generating $12.5 million in savings per year.