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Essential Air Service on chopping block

by Chris Olson

Posted on 3/16/2017

JAMESTOWN - Part of President Donald Trump's proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year released Thursday would eliminate the Essential Air Service program, which provides commercial passenger service to airports in Jamestown, Devils Lake and Dickinson.

Under Trump's proposed budget, eliminating the U.S. Department of Transportation's Essential Air Service program would save $175 million. Essential Air Service provides federal subsidies to airlines that provide commercial passenger service to rural and small-community airports.

Currently Jamestown Regional Airport, Devils Lake Regional Airport and Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport all operate under Essential Air Service. According to information provided by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's office, the U.S. Department of Transportation through Essential Air Service invests $2.8 million annually in Jamestown Regional Airport, $4 million in the Devils Lake Regional Airport and $4.6 million in the Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport.

Sam Seafeldt, Jamestown Regional Airport director, said Thursday that he and Jim Boyd, Jamestown Regional Airport Authority chairman, were sending information to North Dakota's congressional delegation about how important Essential Air Service is to Jamestown and the state.

"Before we discuss any short- or long-range impacts of this (eliminating Essential Air Service)," he said, "we want to see how much footing it (the idea) has, or how much hold it gets in the legislative session."

Seafeldt said it is "fair to assume" that if the Essential Air Service program is eliminated, commercial air service to Jamestown would be impacted.

"It would be up to an airline to decide if it could make it work providing (commercial air) service to Jamestown," he said.

SkyWest Airlines receives $2.8 million annually from the Essential Air Service program to provide commercial passenger air service to Jamestown Regional Airport.

Heitkamp said in a prepared statement Thursday that she supports the Essential Air Service program and it helps keep rural economies "vibrant and connected." She said Essential Air Service guarantees air travel in rural communities and helped Devils Lake Regional Airport set a new record for paid passenger boardings, 6,290, in 2016.

Jamestown Regional Airport also had a record-breaking number of paid passengers boardings in 2016 with 11,123.

In a prepared statement Thursday, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., supported keeping funding for the Essential Air Service program in the 2018 budget.

"Essential Air Service is very important for rural areas, particularly for Jamestown, Devils Lake, and Dickinson," Hoeven said. "We maintain funding for the program in the Fiscal Year 2017 budget. While the President has proposed eliminating EAS in Fiscal Year 2018, I believe we'll be able to sustain funding. We're looking to find savings and reductions, but Essential Air Service is a vital program for rural America."

Hoeven, Heitkamp and Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., have supported the Essential Air Service program and its use at state airports in the past. The state congressional delegation supported Jamestown and Devils Lake regional airports' efforts in 2014 to have SkyWest Airlines provide commercial air service to both airports from Denver International Airport under the Essential Air Service program. The delegation supported the same request when the contract with the U.S. Department of Transportation was up for renewal in 2016.