Posted: Apr 5, 2013 7:43 PM by Drew Trafton - MTN News
BILLINGS - Two Montana communities that use the federally funded Essential Air Service may have to part ways with the program shortly, as both Miles City and Lewistown have failed to meet new requirements laid out by the 35-year-old program ran by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The U.S. Congress passed several reforms geared toward the modernization of the program in 2011, and again in February of 2012.
Those changes included not allowing communities to apply for the service, a mandate calling for an average of ten subsidized passengers to travel on each route per day, and that subsidies for those passengers could not average more than $1,000 annually.
Exemptions for those reforms included communities in the states of Alaska and Hawaii, and communities located at least 175 miles from a mid-sized air hub.
Of the seven cities which make up the Montana Essential Air Service Task Force, both Miles City and Lewistown averaged annual subsidies of more than $2,000 and fail to fall within the exemptions.
The five other communities which will not facing the loss of the EAS program due to reform are Glendive, Sidney, Havre, Wolf Point and Glasgow.
Task force representatives from all of the task force communities, representatives from the Billings airport, the Transportation Security Administration, representatives from Montana's Congressional offices, regional airlines, and concerned community leaders either gathered together Thursday with the goal of crafting a strategy to help keep Miles City and Lewistown involved in the EAS program.
The task force faces a deadline of April 17 to plead its case to the department-a grace period to provide a "Show Order", or proof for the need of the continual existence of the program in Miles City and Lewistown.
During the meeting, a representative from U.S. Senator Max Baucus' office who had been working with the Department of Transportation on EAS in Montana told the task force via teleconference to "throw every argument you have at them (U.S. DOT)."
It was determined after over an hour of discussion that the crux of those arguments falls to an economic domino effect -one that centers around subsidies from the other five airports rising if the regional airlines competing to provide service to fewer passengers on fewer routes.
Chairman John Rabenberg says members of the task force saw coming at the eve of the program. "We could see this coming 35 years ago when we decided it would be best if we stuck together."
Rabenberg estimates from previous studies conducted for the benefit of the task force that each passenger on those routes contributes an average of $125 in economic benefit to the communities which support the EAS program.
The task force decided that the most effective method for helping Lewistown and Miles City would be for every task force airport to write a letter to the federal Department of Transportation in support of the EAS program continuing in those two communities.
A representative from Miles City also announced that a community meeting will be held concerning ESA flights in Miles City on Monday, April 15, beginning at 5 p.m. in City Hall.
Once the review period wraps up on April 17, the federal Department of Transportation will make a final decision about services for Miles City and Lewistown. It's expected that the department will take about 20 days to make that decision.
One of the mandates in the reform of the program states that once eliminated from the services a community cannot re-apply. However, a representative from Senator Max Baucus' office says that the Department of Transportation has stated an appeal would be considered in the event that Miles City and Lewistown lose the service.