Support the McCain Amendment to Eliminate the Low-Priority Essential Air Service Program!

Dear Senator:

     On behalf of the 362,000-member National Taxpayers Union(NTU), I urge you to vote “Yes” on Senator John McCain’s amendment to S. 223,the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Bill. Approving thisamendment, which would repeal the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, is anideal way for the Senate to demonstrate its commitment toward eliminatinglow-priority expenditures and beginning to restore fiscal responsibility to thefederal budget.

     Created in 1978 as a 10-year venture that would ease thetransition to a more market-driven commercial aviation sector, EAS has, likemany other federal programs, engendered constituencies that have kept theprogram alive far beyond any demonstrable purpose. Indeed, NTU questioned theneed for EAS in the first place, given the fact that robust and competitive airservices would fulfill consumers’ needs more efficiently than any governmentsubsidization scheme. Unfortunately, many of the taxpayers’ worst fears aboutEAS have come true. The program now operates in more than 100 areas of thecountry, even as air travelers’ choices are numerous. In fact, the GovernmentAccountability Office concluded in 2009 that many Americans are shunningEAS-subsidized flights and airports in favor of lower-cost fares offered athubs that are still reasonably accessible by automobile. This free-marketevolution can be encouraged by easing tax and regulatory burdens on airlinesand customers.

     Just as other federal transportation programs like Amtrakpour tax dollars into unprofitable and low-traveled routes which consumers bypassout of preference for other commercial alternatives, EAS seems to operate more outof satisfying political considerations than addressing any perceived marketdefects. Your colleague Senator Coburn provided a vivid illustration of these flawsin a report, Wastebook 2010, latelast year:

     The cities of Macon andAthens, Georgia are both less than a 90-minute drive from Atlanta‘sHartsfield-Jackson International airport. Despite this, the U.S. Department ofTransportation subsidized 26 flights per week to and from each city at a clipof $464 per passenger for Macon and $135 for Athens. Passengers pay $39 eachfor a seat on the 50-minute flight. … The local newspaper reports that theMacon [service] averaged 10 passengers a day, while Athens averaged 12 EAS-subsidizedflights. By law, the Department of Transportation subsidies are capped at $200for flights to airports less than 210 miles from a large or medium hub, whichAtlanta is.

     EAS’s justification may always have been dubious, but intoday’s fiscal environment its continued existence is even less defensible. Thesavings at stake from passage of the McCain Amendment – $200 million –certainly won’t erase the current fiscal year’s projected $1.5 trilliondeficit, but if the Senate cannot eliminate this blatant example oflow-priority spending, taxpayers will have every right to question Congress’ssincerity in the vital endeavor of bringing the budget back under control.

     NTU has expressed concerns over several portions of theFAA bill, including the threat of higher Passenger Facility Charges and a lackof progress in moving toward a private sector-driven model for air trafficcontrol. Senator McCain’s proposal provides a key opportunity to break from thetax-and-spend philosophy that has dominated past FAA legislation and torecognize the role of commercial aviation in America’s economic recovery. Onceagain, NTU asks that you support the McCain Amendment; roll call votespertaining to this measure will be significantly weighted in our annual Ratingof Congress.


Pete Sepp
Executive Vice President