Bill would end federal subsidies in 3 rural Minn. airportsby Matt Sepic, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A bill just passed in a U.S. House committee would end subsidies for passenger flights to small rural airports, including three in Minnesota.
The Republican-backed measure would phase out the $200 million Essential Air Service program by 2013, everywhere but Alaska.
In Minnesota, the government paid $5.5 million last year for flights to International Falls, Thief River Falls, and Chisholm-Hibbing.
Thief River Falls airport manager Joe Hedrick said losing the $1.2 million federal subsidy would mean an end to regular passenger flights.
"Commercial service altogether would stop here in Thief River, further isolating our community from the air transportation network," Hedrick said.
In 2009, subsidies at Thief River Falls airport worked out to $226 per passenger, and a 2009 Government Accountability Office report said on average two thirds of seats went unfilled on subsidized flights.
Joe Hedrick said losing airline service would hurt the local economy and the businesses that depend on convenient air travel.
"There's a lot of business up here, Digi-Key for one," he said. "I'm sure they use the route to get to Minneapolis and connect to the rest of the world. If they couldn't fly out of here, they'd have to drive to another hub airport and fly out of there."
The Essential Air Service program started after airline deregulation in the late 1970s. Republican Sen. John McCain said eliminating the program is a test of lawmakers' commitment to cut spending.