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Hattiesburg airport director: Essential Air Service program needs to be revised, not eliminated

By BECKY GILLETTE

The proposed elimination of the Essential Air Service (EAS) program under the budget proposed by President Donald Trump is of concern in rural states such as Mississippi, where four of the seven commercial service airports in the state receive EAS subsidies. Getting rid of the program is not a new idea.

“This happens every time we have a Republican president,” said Tom Heanue, executive director, Hattiesburg-Laurel Regional Airport. “It happened under the Bush administration. Every budget proposal eliminated the EAS, but was not approved by Congress. Then we went into a Democratic presidency and didn’t have to mess with this for eight years. After election night, I wondered how long it will be before there was a budget salvo. It didn’t take long after the inauguration for the EAS program to be on the hit list.”

The EAS program was created in 1979 after deregulation of the airline industry happened in 1978. Before that, every airport in the country got some type of government subsidy.

“The government decided airlines needed to do their own business without subsidies,” Heanue said. “At small communities across the country, air service was on the hit list. Because airlines didn’t make money at the smaller communities, they were going to leave. The EAS was created as a stopgap. The EAS is the same creature it has been since that time.”

In the past, Mississippi’s congressional delegation has been supportive of retaining the EAS. Heanue is hopeful that will happen again.

“I am on my draft letter to our senators for our airport,” Heanue said. “We haven’t talked about this as a group in Mississippi yet. I have seen on other media that delegations from North Dakota and South Dakota are stepping up to say they don’t want the EAS cut. We will be in step with that because it is so important to Mississippi. In rural states, passenger commercial air service is the lifeline for the area’s commercial and economic development. It is very important to us.”

The other Mississippi airports with EAS subsidies are Tupelo, Greenville and Meridian.

Heanue said no one likes to be on welfare. He proposes fixing the program rather than eliminating it. It needs to be tweaked so the taxpayers are getting the most benefit and the services provided are efficient and reliable.

“We would all like to be self-sustaining, and have airlines serving the area doing well, and the community doing well,” he said. “But the fact is in a small community, the economics are just not there. People can drive to Jackson, the Gulf Coast or New Orleans where they have more choices. When you are the only horse in town, the horse can charge what it wants. If the EAS was more performance-based to receive the subsidy, it would encourage the airlines to price the seats to grow the number of travelers in that area.”

He likens not having commercial air service today to not having the railroad 150 years ago.

“That was a big thing when the railroad went through your town,” Heanue said. “Airports are important for general aviation and commercial air service. Airports are important to companies that want to bring business and jobs. That is why the EAS is important to Mississippi. Is it perfect? No. Could it be fixed? Yes. Let’s bring together some people who are smart and understand things and shape it into more a performance-based subsidy instead of blanket subsidy. Have some performance measures so the air carrier will put people in the seats.”

Small, single-engine propeller airplanes that seat seven to nine passengers work for some small communities. But Heanue said he wouldn’t be able to attract passengers for small, single-engine planes.

“For our community, 50-passenger jet service is what our people look for or they would prefer to drive to New Orleans, Jackson or Gulfport,” he said.

An affordable price and convenience is also important to customers. They want to be able to check in when getting on the first leg of the trip so they are in the system and don’t have to go through security again when they get to a larger hub. A lot of the smaller aircraft don’t have those connections.

Heanue said if an area loses EAS, it won’t get it back. Losing service can happen when a carrier pulls out and another can’t be found to replace it. There are only about 150 EAS airports left in the U.S., with about a third of those in Alaska.

“Not a lot of small regional carriers want to do an EAS,” he said. “Bigger airlines don’t want small markets and small airplanes. It is not 1979 anymore. Back then there were tons of carriers. At this airport, at one time we had four small carriers. We were going to New Orleans, La., Atlanta, Ga., and Florida. We have been down to one the past 27 or 28 years. Before we got our current carrier, American Eagle, we had Silver Airlines for 18 months. That didn’t work out well. They bit off more than they could chew.”

EAS subsidies used to go pretty far, but Heanue said today for airlines, it is all about risk. Airlines cannot fly half full and be profitable.

The airport has been averaging about 16,000 passengers per year in recent years. On June 2 it will start offering additional flights a day to Chicago, and Dallas, seven days a week.

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