Feds Fund Grounded Airplane

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The U.S. government is paying $6,600 a month to keep an old turboprop it leases grounded in Georgia even though it seems doubtful the Gulfstream G-1 dubbed Aero Marti will ever fly for Uncle Sam again. “The contract now is a ‘non-fly’ [agreement],” Steve Christopher of Phoenix Air Group told the Washington Post. “That’s what the customer wants.” The customer is the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which has recognized the folly of trying to pour news from the real world into Cuba from above even though the communist country long ago learned how to keep that brand of reality from intruding on its populace. Until May of this year, the G-1, which ironically is roughly the same age as the 50-year-old crisis that keeps it in funded limbo today, was used to beam uncensored television news reports in Spanish to the island nation. The problem is the Cuban government discovered more than 20 years ago (when a hot air balloon was used to carry the transmitters) how to jam the weak signals and it’s estimated that less than 1 percent of Cubans could (or cared to) tune in. And yet the government has paid about $32 million since 2006 to fly the aircraft and, thanks to a convoluted political aberration of sequestration, continues to pay more than $79,500 a year for the plane to be stored at Phoenix Air Group’s headquarters in Cartersville, Ga.

Even though the Office of Cuba Broadcasting asked Congress to stop funding the program, Congress, at the behest of influential Florida lawmakers, kept Aero Marti in the budget. The Florida members, some of Cuban ancestry, apparently believe there is value in the fact that Cuba is jamming the signals. “If it wasn’t important, why would they block the signals? So we know that it’s effective,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., told the Post. With the sequester, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting saw its chance. Its contribution to the austerity program was $1.4 million and it assigned the whole works to Aero Marti. That was enough to eliminate funding for pilots and operating expenses but it wasn’t enough to kill the program entirely. So the G-1 stands ready to broadcast television signals that no one can watch to people who might not watch anyway. Meanwhile, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting has moved on albeit in a sometimes retro way. It's now claiming success in bringing "balanced" reporting to Cubans via the Internet, satellite TV and AM radio.