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OVERKILL Trump errs with plan to defund air service

By JIM PAXTON

President Donald Trump sent a budget outline to Congress last week which, for good or ill, is probably dead on arrival.

The proposal includes elimination of a number of relatively small government programs supporting such areas as humanities and public broadcasting. Of particular note to Paducah (and Cape Girardeau for that matter) is Trump's proposal to eliminate funding for the Essential Air Service program.

The program was established in 1978 in conjunction with a congressional vote that deregulated airlines. The vote meant airlines were free to offer service wherever they wished and vice versa.

The Essential Air Service program was created to protect smaller communities like Paducah, which had substantial investments in passenger airports and were likely to lose service under deregulation. The program provided subsidies to assure such communities maintained at least two round-trips a day to medium-sized or large hub airports.

The program is the reason that Paducah presently enjoys twice-a-day commuter jet service to Chicago's O'Hare airport. The service has been subsidized to the tune of about $2 million annually via the Essential Air Service program. Federal Aviation Administration data shows that in 2014 that translated to a subsidy of $49 per Paducah passenger.

Passenger count for the Paducah service has grown steadily since its inception. It recently logged its best February ever. More than 1,400 people used the service that month, resulting in an average seat occupancy just shy of 55 percent. Those are impressive numbers for a commuter service at a smaller airport.

Local airport officials estimate the O'Hare flights generate $30 million in direct economic benefit. We grant that such numbers often are just a stab. But we think the value of the service is incalculable in terms of what it means to economic development prospects that we have direct jet service to a major international airport.

The Essential Air Service program costs Washington $175 million a year. That's not even walking around money for Congress these days. But the program has long been picked on in Washington for reasons we've never fully understood.

We agree that the federal government is too big and has its finger in far too many things, to the detriment of us all. A fair argument can be had about whether the federal government has any business meddling in education or funding the arts. But the government's role in transportation is implicit in the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The federal government is well inbounds by assuring that regional airports have commercial service.

It is noteworthy that for most of the 1990s the Essential Air Service program was self-funding. Money for it came from the Aviation Trust Fund, which gets its revenue from fees on aviation tickets and fuel. In principle the trust fund exists solely to finance improvements at local airports. Congress has now looted the fund, naturally, but that is a topic for another day.

When Donald Trump was inaugurated he vowed that the days of Washington ignoring middle America and the middle class are over. This proposal to effectively kill small-town air service flies in the face of that. We trust members of our local congressional delegation will endeavor to save the president from himself on this one.

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