Rural air service aid survives vote – Senate leaves money intact that subsidizes Big Sky Airlines

A lone passenger disembarks a Big Sky Airlines flight Wednesday at the Great Falls International AIrport. Although Essential Air Service money is not available to the Great Falls airport, it is the lifeblood of Big Sky, which serves many of the state’s smaller, rural airports.

Tribune Staff Writer

The federal program that subsidizes air service to seven Montana towns has survived a Bush administration attempt to cut funding in half, Montana’s senators said Wednesday.

The Senate subcommittee approved $102 million nationally for the Essential Air Service program. About $5 million would go to subsidize Big Sky Airlines service to Havre, Lewistown, Glendive, Miles City, Glasgow, Sidney and Wolf Point.

"Congress essentially has beaten back the president’s proposal to drastically cut Essential Air Service," said Barrett Kaiser, spokes-man for Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.

But Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., was upset because the subcommittee provided only $102 million, which is $11 million short of what the House Appropriations Committee has approved.

"I’m not happy with this figure, because it’s not enough to cover the nation, but it is enough to maintain stability for the Montana program," Burns said in a news release.

The Bush budget had called for spending only $50 million for EAS. In addition, the administration proposed several major changes in the way the program operates, including shifting some of the costs to states.

The administration also proposed taking the subsidy money and giving it directly to the rural communities to decide whether they want to continue to pay for air service, or provide buses or taxis to the nearest airport instead.

Officials from some of the rural communities served say the plan is too risky.

"Without question, allowing communities to bus or use a taxi service is not fitting with the promise made to rural America when they deregulated the airlines in the late 1970s," said Paul Tuss, executive director of Havre’s Bear Paw Development Corp.

"We find it critical to have Big Sky Airlines flying to Havre for a number of reasons and number one is economic development," Tuss said.

Connie Fry, executive director of the Lewistown Chamber of Commerce, echoed Tuss’ sentiments.

"I would hate to lose Big Sky here," Fry said.

Parceling out the federal subsidy for EAS to each community would be harder than simply writing a check, said Kim Champney, president of Big Sky Airlines. MAIR Holdings of Minneapolis bought Big Sky in December and now operates it as a wholly-owned subsidiary.

Champney said he’s all for reform of the EAS program. Airlines are required to bid contracts for two years and are allowed a 5 percent profit. But those airlines have no protection from unexpected cost increases.

"After Sept. 11, 2001, our insurance costs went from $1 million a year to $2.2 million a year, an increase that came basically overnight," Champney said.

"Regional airlines are always in favor of reform," he added, "but not this piecemeal approach when you try to tweak this and tweak that."

Megan Shroyer, branch manager of Lewistown’s Farm Credit Service, uses Big Sky to get to meetings in Billings about five times a year. She said it’s convenient to take the morning flight to Billings, then return home in the evening on the later flight.

"An airport is a necessity living here," Shroyer said. "If we want our town to grow, we need an airport."

Lewistown has bus service to Billing and Great Falls, but Havre’s only other public transportation is Amtrak rail service, which runs across Montana’s Hi-Line. Glasgow and Wolf Point are in the same situation.

Glendive and Miles City have bus service. Big Sky Airlines is Sidney’s only form of public transportation however.

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