Aviation Gets Hosed Again

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It's all but an article of faith that when things go awry in the political structure—which is, what?…basically always—aviation takes it in the shorts. It's depressingly illuminating to find out why, sometimes. This week, it's a hopeless fight over Essential Air Service or EAS, holding up the FAA's reauthorization. Or at least that's part of the problem. Another issue is that the House added a rider to the FAA bill overturning a labor law making it easier for airline employees to unionize.

But back to EAS. You know about EAS. It's the FAA program where the government subsidizes air carriers for providing air service to communities where it wouldn't otherwise be profitable to do so. When you see a old Beech 99 flying out of some backwater muni with nine passengers aboard, that's probably an EAS operation. As government programs go, it's not a big one: About $200 million a year. To put that in context, $200 million is about 100 times more money than the FAA tech center needs to get its avgas testing and research underway; it's a little over 1 percent of the FAA's entire $16 billionish budget and it's about a week's worth of airline taxes, which the FAA is not now collecting because of the lack of authorization. By the time Congress returns after Labor Day, the total loss will be $1 billion, and that doesn't count contract delay charges for 248 delayed construction projects.

The people really getting burned on this deal are some 70,000 workers now unemployed because Congress can't get its act together to reach a solution. As I mentioned before, some 4000 FAA employees are furloughed and their unwanted and unpaid vacation will disrupt hundreds of certification projects that companies desperately in need of approvals and oversight must have to keep their businesses alive. More jobs lost. More money down the tube. More lost tax revenue.

So against this backdrop, you have to ask yourself if you support the idea of EAS. Should the federal government subsidize air transportation into small communities? After all, it pays for runways, navaids, control towers and all sorts of infrastructure that private and public companies are allowed to use to make profits. Why not the air service itself? Where do you draw the line?

Personally, although I support FAA investment in infrastructure, I don't support EAS because I view it as one step over the line into what the private sector should do. It's pork barelling. If there's no profitable market for airline service, a community will have to figure out alternatives. But I'm not ideological about this. The more important principle is to keep the lights on at the FAA and to get those folks back on the job doing airport improvements and cert work. In other words, find some kind of compromise. Cut the program in half or agree to sunset it eventually. (The House, in fact did this, proposing to cut subsidies to 13 airports, saving a paltry $16 million.)

But in the current Congress and government, it's all or nothing isn't it? No compromises on anything. No deals. It reminds me of that famous—perhaps apocryphal—quote of the Vietnam war: It was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.

In this case, the village is those of us who inhabit aviation and its related businesses. This squabble in Congress will burn through more than $1 billion in lost revenue, wages and penalties to save a lousy $16 million, if that. It will cause a lot of people real hardship. And somewhere sometime soon, a runway or taxiway won't get constructed and a terminal building will be months late.

At least now you know why.