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Airport subsidies would be gone under president's plan

By DAVID ZOELLER dzoeller@paducahsun.com

While President Trump's budget proposal to eliminate federal subsidies to rural airports - including Barkley Regional - concerns local officials, it did not come as a total surprise.

The president's 2018 Budget Blueprint estimates that cutting the Essential Air Service program would result in a savings of $175 million. Under the program, the government subsidizes airlines to provide commercial service to smaller communities which would otherwise operate at a loss.

That proposal would affect the $2.17 million annual subsidy SkyWest Airlines receives to provide daily flights to and from Chicago out of Barkley Regional Airport.

The possibility that Trump would propose cutting EAS funding was on the radar of local officials prior to Thursday's announcement.

According to Sandra Wilson, president of the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce, "The rumor was out that it might happen" before a small contingent of local officials traveled to Washington in February to meet with federal officials to discuss issues of community concern.

"We did talk about it (with our congressional delegation)," Wilson said. "I felt they all understood the impact it would have on Paducah and Barkley Regional Airport."

According to Wilson, "As a UNESCO city and with the National Quilt Museum and quilt show, we have visitors flying to Paducah with only one connection through Chicago. That is very attractive for international travelers for recreation and tourism purposes. It helps set our community apart."

Mayor Brandi Harless was among officials making the February trip.

"We definitely don't want to see those services decline," Harless said. "It's pretty unique for a small town to have such a great service to Chicago."

In a statement, Barkley officials said: "The EAS program makes possible the affordable commercial airline service that connects us to the world. The average flight from Paducah is 62 percent full, making us one of the best examples of the continued need for this program. We recognize today's proposal by the Trump administration is just the start of a long budgetary process, and at present, the future of commercial air service at Barkley Airport is not in doubt.

"That being the case, we will be working with our elected officials in Washington and Frankfort, as well as locally to do everything we can to ensure that airline service continues."

Jay Page, chairman of the Barkley Regional Airport Authority, said while the potential cuts are of great concern, "We feel like we're in a good position among the most successful of EAS cities. We get about $2 million to fly the flights and from that comes with a $30 million return in our area."

McCracken County Judge-Executive Bob Leeper noted the budget process is just beginning. "I am hopeful our congressional delegation will consider the community's input on the importance of that (EAS) funding," he said.

In a statement to The Sun on the budget blueprint, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said:

"I'm pleased to see an increased focus on our national security and veterans' budgets. These are positive steps in the right direction. I look forward to reviewing this and the full budget when it is released later this spring. While this is only the first step in the budget process, I will work with the delegation to protect essential Kentucky priorities in the final budget."

U.S. Rep. James Comer commended the president for "putting forward a bold budget proposal.

"However, it is just that - a proposal. The House of Representatives holds the power of the purse, and no president's budget proposal has ever been wholly enacted. Now it is up to Congress to get to work and make the tough decisions that must be made to rein in federal spending. I do understand Barkley Regional Airport is very important to western Kentucky. It will be a priority for me to make sure those communities continue to get strong airline service."

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