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Trump Budget Plan Would Cut Funding For Rural Passenger Air Subsidies

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Decatur Park District
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A proposal in the Trump administration’s budget plan would eliminate funding for passenger service at rural and small-town airports.

Right now, Air Choice One flies in and out of Decatur Airport six days a week, with a total of six flights daily to Chicago and St. Louis. It does so with a federal subsidy through the Essential Air Service . This program was created to help rural and small-town airports.

Air Choice One CEO Shane Storz says if Congress eliminated the subsidy, they would have to reduce their service to Decatur.

“What I have proposed, if it was to go away, is to reduce frequency,” said Storz. “So, rather than them getting six trips a day, we may have to take it down to two or three, to see if we could make that work, and be self-sustaining.”

Congressman Rodney Davis says he supports continued funding for a program that pays for passenger air service at Decatur and other small-town airports.

President Trump’s budget plan calls for the elimination of funding for the Essential Air Service.

“EAS flights are not full and have high subsidy costs per passenger,” says the U.S. Office of Management and Budget in its summary of budget plan highlights. “Several EAS-eligible communities are relatively close to major airports, and communities that have EAS could be served by other existing modes of transportation.”

Other critics of EAS say it’s a program that’s outlived its purpose. Travel blogger Gary Leff says the program was created in the 1970s “as a temporary measure to soften the blow of deregulation”. Leff writes in his “View From The Wing” blog that the program no longer serves a practical purpose, and uses its subsidy of Decatur air service as an example.

“Decatur, Illinois is less than an hour from both Champaign and Springfield,” writes Leff. “It receives subsidized flights to St. Louis a mere 110 miles away by air. If passengers want to go to St. Louis they should drive. If passengers don’t want to fly out of Champaign or Springfield they should drive to St. Louis.”

Bloomington is closer to Decatur then Champaign. But airports at Bloomington, Champaign and Springfield all offer air service to Chicago and other cities, without reliance on EAS subsidies (although none of them offer flights to St. Louis).

But Davis says the passenger service underwritten by EAS is vital for Decatur and other small communities, such as Quincy and Marion, which also host EAS-funded flights.

“The federal government has said we’re going to provide those customers, those constituents in smaller communities where it’s tougher to survive in somewhat of a semi-monopolistic environment of our U.S. air travel, and give those customers access to getting to larger airports to be able to do business travel or other travel,” said Davis.

Storz says that currently, Air Choice One’s Decatur flights serve about 16,000 passengers a year. He says that number would have to rise to 20,000 to 25,000 passengers a year for the service to be profitable on its own.