Trump budget cuts hit local airport

ESCANABA — Among other cuts, the $1.1 trillion budget proposal released by President Donald Trump’s administration Thursday would eliminate funding for the Essential Air Service (EAS) program if approved in its current state. Delta County Airport Manager Kelly Smith said that losing EAS, which ensures regularly-scheduled commercial air service to several rural communities, would be a major blow to the Delta County Airport.

“If EAS goes away, local communities like ours would have to find a way to help subsidize the current status quo… possibly come up with a different type of airline service, or lose commercial airline service altogether,” she said.

Currently, SkyWest Airlines is contracted to provide 12 flights a week to Detroit from the Delta County Airport. SkyWest is given $2,832,133 in annual subsidies by the federal government through the EAS program to offer these services.

The elimination of EAS would save the federal government about $175 million per year. Smith said despite this program’s expense, it plays an important role.

“I believe it’s something that should stay — I believe it’s a necessity for rural communities like ours,” she said.

This is not the first time the EAS program has been in jeopardy.

“It just seems to be a little more urgent this year,” Smith said.

If EAS is eliminated, the airport may still work with smaller commercial airlines to provide flights to other airports. Smith said even if the airport is unable to offer commercial flights, the Delta County Airport and other airports that rely on EAS would not close.

“You become a general aviation airport if you lose commercial airline service,” she said.

However, the loss of this service would create problems for the local airport.

“We still are responsible to keep our airport in tip-top shape through FAA regulations,” Smith said. Without the revenue created by commercial air service, this would become much more difficult, she added.

The loss of these flights would also have a negative economic impact on the area.

“We’re in the process of getting a study right now from the state of Michigan — a community benefit assessment,” Smith said. According to a community benefit assessment done in 2012, aviation in Delta County created 75 jobs that year.

Delta County Airport is not the only U.P. airport which relies on EAS for commercial air services. Smith said the same is true for airports in Chippewa, Dickinson, Gogebic, and Houghton counties. Four airports downstate are also part of the EAS program.

“The state of Michigan has the most EAS airports in the country other than Alaska,” she said.

Because of this, Smith said Michigan would be uniquely affected by the elimination of this program.

“This would be such a devastating blow not just in the U.P., but (in) the state as a whole,” she said.

In response to the proposed elimination of EAS, Smith is currently reaching out to the managers of the state’s other EAS airports. These airports will work together to decide what they should do next.

“There’s a feeling (of) necessity to go at this as a group,” Smith said.

The airport has also contacted various legislators.

“We’re going to our representatives — (local), state and federal levels,” Smith said. They have been contacted by legislators looking to share information on communities that would be affected by the elimination of EAS, as well.

Smith said while the Trump administration’s budget proposal is not set in stone, she and other managers of EAS airports will keep a close eye on its progress.

“We’ll be watching it very intently,” she said.