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EDITORIAL: Local air service essential, but not priceless

Essential Air Service — the federal program that subsidizes commercial flights to and from Yellowstone Regional Airport during the winter months — is a frequent target of budget hawks.

In March, President Donald Trump proposed eliminating the program that serves rural airports around the country by cutting all of its funding.

Former President George W. Bush also made attempts to trim or abolish the subsidies during his time in office.

“This program is a relic of the regulatory era, subsidizes uneconomic air service and has not kept pace with consumer choices,” the Bush administration wrote in 2007.

The gist of Essential Air Service is that taxpayers cover the difference between what an airline makes on ticket sales and what it actually costs to make those flights. For the roughly 175 rural routes included in the program, there simply aren’t enough passengers to make the flights worth an airline’s time and resources. And that’s where the Essential Air Service subsidies come in — to keep planes flying to places that would otherwise lose their connections to regional hubs.

In the case of Yellowstone Regional Airport, United Airlines says it would need $850,000 from the government to break even on twice-daily flights from Cody to Denver between October and June; SkyWest Airlines, meanwhile, says it would need $1.32 million to make twice-a-day trips to Salt Lake City.

With a six- or seven-figure price tag to help provide air service to a relatively small number of people (less than 140 passengers a day, on average), one can understand why Essential Air Service is a frequent punching bag of budget watchers.

The program is in many ways a perfect example of why our country is $20.47 trillion in debt.

Many of the communities supported by the Essential Air Service program are like Cody: generally conservative and represented by Republican senators and representatives who would probably be among the first to support defunding the program — if the money wasn’t heading into their districts.

And then there’s the fact that the federal government has decided that the cost to taxpayers does not need to be one of the key criteria when choosing between competing Essential Air Service proposals.

By law, when the U.S. Department of Transportation considers SkyWest’s $1.32 million proposal for service to Salt Lake and United’s $850,000 proposal to fly to Denver, the department will consider their airlines’ reliability, the connectivity they offer to other carriers, any marketing plans and the views of local community members.

“The money didn’t make the top five [criteria]. It was bizarre,” Cody-Yellowstone Air Improvement Resources (CYAIR) Administrator Bucky Hall said at a Park County Commission meeting last week. “It didn’t make any sense to me, personally.”

We understand that the cheapest option isn’t always the best. But, outside of government, in what situation does cost not even enter into the conversation?

Local airport officials are backing SkyWest’s proposal, apparently because of lingering concern over the way United brass have treated the Cody area in the past. We respect their views — the folks who serve on the boards of CYAIR and Yellowstone Regional Airport know much more about the carriers and industry than we do — but we question if it’s really worth spending an extra $471,000 a year (55 percent more) when the airlines are so comparable in so many respects.

We also suspect that, the lower the cost to taxpayers, the less likely our Essential Air Service dollars will draw the aim of penny pinchers in the future.

Cody is a relative bargain among some of the other communities that participate in the program. United’s proposal would amount to a subsidy of about $25.50 per passenger; SkyWest’s about $40. In comparison, Essential Air Service can provide subsidies of up to $200 per passenger and, in a few cases, beyond.

We’d argue it makes sense for the government to support air service in communities like Cody that need relatively modest subsidies. (We’re less sympathetic to communities where the government’s actually paying more money than the passengers are.)

Reliable, year-round commercial air service from Cody brings real economic value to all of Park County. Yellowstone Regional Airport’s connections are a true asset to local citizens and businesses, both in offering connections to the rest of the world and in bringing the rest of the world to us.

We hope our members of Congress continue to support the Essential Air Service program, but there’s no need for them to support it at all costs.

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