Our opinion: Flying on Uncle Sam

Bradford Regional Airport is one of more than 100 small, rural airports across the country that rely on a federal subsidy to stay open because its operations aren’t sustainable on their passenger loads.

In April of 2011 there was a battle over the subsidies paid to those airports under the Essential Air Service program, a program that Congressman Glenn Thompson, whose district includes the airport, staunchly supported. At the time Bradford Regional was averaging less than 20 passengers a day; it takes 10 passengers a day to receive the subsidy.

At the time, Thompson pointed out that the program only cost taxpayers $8.8 million a year, a veritable dust speck on the federal budget, and far less than the $3.5 billion spent on capital improvements at larger airports like New York LaGuardia or Chicago O’Hare, which handle tens of thousands of passengers per day.

Last week it was reported that Bradford Regional is in danger of losing its EAS funding because its commuter service, Silver Airways, has had a spate of cancellations over the previous few weeks. In fact, the average during that period was only 5 passengers per day.

At what point does the Essential Air Service simply pay, and pay dearly, for the convenience of no more than a handful of people? According to the program’s mandate, the sufficient number is only 10 people.

Thompson defended his support for the program at a time when the hue and cry among Republicans in the House was to cut federal spending. Now, nearly two years later, we believe that as the dreaded sequestration looms over us, the EAS should be one of those programs looked at very carefully by those in the House and the Senate who claim to want to significantly cut federal spending to put the country on path toward balancing its checkbook.

Bradford Regional may lose its EAS anyway, or it may squeak by with the bare minimum to qualify, but the numbers resurrect the concern that the federal government is underwriting a commercial enterprise and circumventing the law of supply and demand.