Alaska Dispatch: Alaska Sens. Begich and Murkowski address Essential Air Service repeal

As the Senate debate continues over the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, the question of Essential Air Service remains up in the air. The service, which provides government subsidies for air carriers providing regular air service to rural American communities, is the target of an amendment proposed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would cut the $212 million program from the FAA's budget.

Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich both addressed the proposed amendment on the Senate floor this morning, and both made a strong case for the necessity of EAS in Alaska. Both senators used a map of Alaska circulating right now that shows the state's road system, and Begich imposed Alaska over the contiguous U.S. for size comparison.

The map has become the flag being waved by aviation proponents across Alaska, illustrating the lack of roads and the vastness of the state. Murkowski underscored this illustration by mentioning that Alaska, for all its size, has 11,000 miles of roads, and 80 percent of Alaskan communities aren't connected to that road system. California, by comparison, has 2.3 million miles of roads.

Of the 44 Alaska communities that could be affected by the EAS repeal, 38 are not connected by roads, Murkowski said. And those communities that are connected, like McCarthy, have roads either unmaintained in the winter months or that are two-lane gravel affairs.

"Alaska is different," Murkowski said, "and when we're talking about the Essential Air Service, I repeat, Alaska is different."

Murkowski and Begich both mentioned that where most citizens in the US can get in a car and drive to a hospital, that simply isn't an option for many rural Alaskans. "(Air service) is not a luxury, (it) is a necessity," Murkowski said.

Both senators read from letters from their constituents, from individual rural residents to the owner of PenAir. All the letters discussed the reliance of citizens and businesses on the government subsidies provided by the program. Begich addressed the possible loss of employment and a spike in the cost of goods in rural communities.

"If you eliminate the EAS program, it is going to drive these prices even higher in the state of Alaska," he said. He said that McCain's example of rural residents bypassing flights from rural communities and driving in their cars to larger, hub airports doesn't apply to Alaska. Begich pointed out that Adak is not connected by road to Anchorage, which is 1,200 miles away. This would be the equivalent of driving from Los Angeles to Houston, Texas, according to Begich.

Neither of the senators raised points that haven't been brought up before, rather focusing on the many unique features that make Alaska different when it comes to EAS. "Alaska has six times more pilots and 16 times more planes" than any other state, Begich said. Whether the speeches will have any effect when the bill and amendments are put up for a vote remains to be seen, but they underscored for the rest of the Senate the necessity of the program within Alaska.




By:  By: Ben Anderson. Originally published February 14, 2011