CORTEZ – Though President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget calls for elimination of Essential Air Service – which would hurt Cortez – airport manager Russ Machen said recently that there’s no cause for alarm.
“Year after year, it survives,” he said.
Essential Air Service, or EAS, is a program of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The 40-year-old program helps bring commercial air service to small communities across the country that otherwise might not have scheduled service.
EAS subsidizes air service for about 115 communities in the lower 48 states and about 60 in Alaska. Eliminating the program would save about $175 million, according to the Associated Press.
A two-year, $6 million contract with Boutique Air for service to Cortez, which started in October 2016, was entirely subsidized by federal EAS dollars, Machen said in late March.
Machen, who has been Cortez Municipal Airport manager for more than 25 years, said previous administrations also have proposed cutting the program, as far back as President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. He said there hasn’t ever been political will in Congress to follow through.
This time around, Machen said, it’s too soon to tell, since Trump’s budget hasn’t been through Congress.
“It’s months and months away from knowing what will happen,” he said.
With the new airline, the number of passengers at the Cortez Airport has nearly tripled, Machen said.
In October 2015, 244 passengers boarded flights at the Cortez airport with the previous provider, Great Lakes Airlines, Machen said. In October 2016, Boutique’s first month of operation, 616 passengers boarded flights.
Other months follow a similar trend from year to year, with about triple the amount of passengers now flying from Cortez, Machen said.
He attributed the increase to lower prices, more flight variety and greater reliability. The airline operates three daily flights from Cortez to Denver and one to Phoenix. Prices for one-way flights start at $99, according to the airline’s website.
The federal EAS subsidy goes to Boutique Air for each one-way flight, Machen said. If Boutique cancels a flight, it gets less money. The contract amount is based on the best-case scenario, in which Boutique runs every flight each day for the length of the contract, Machen said. Typically, airlines expect to run 95-96 percent of their flights, he said.
In an emailed statement, Boutique Air CEO Shawn Simpson said the company, and the EAS program, helps small towns stay connected to the rest of the U.S.
“We believe the Essential Air Service program is extremely valuable for communities throughout the U.S.,” he said. “Not only does the EAS program serve the residents of these communities, but it also supports the businesses and commerce in the area.”
The company serves 26 airports across the U.S. and operates 105 flights per day, with 3-4 daily round trips at each airport, according to Simpson. The flights are about 68 percent full, and the company flew about 115,000 passengers in 2016, Simpson said. He expects passenger traffic will double this year.
Cortez Mayor Karen Sheek said she’s confident lawmakers will realize how EAS benefits rural communities.
“A million here and 2 million there sounds like big money to me, but in the big picture, the economic stimulus that EAS provides for communities like ours is a very good trade-off,” she said.
In an April 4 letter addressed to the House Transportation Subcommittee, U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, said EAS is a “vital safety net” for the communities it serves. He called for the subcommittee to protect EAS against “disproportionate cuts.”
“Our nation’s rural and small communities depend on commercial air service for transportation, medical supplies, commercial goods, and access to larger business markets,” Tipton wrote in the letter.
If the budget eliminated EAS, Machen said, Cortez and Boutique Air’s options might include a flight price increase.
“I don’t have enough pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to start figuring that out,” he said.
firstname.lastname@example.org Stephanie Alderton, of The Journal, contributed to this story.