A much-criticized subsidy for rural air travel would get a budget increase of more than 40 percent under a spending bill unveiled in the House on Monday.
The legislation approved by a House Appropriations subcommittee would give $173 million in the upcoming budget year to the Essential Air Service, which provides subsidies to small airlines to fly unprofitable routes. That's a $53 million increase.
In many cases the flights are nearly empty. In other instances, such as flights between Buffalo Niagara International Airport and Jamestown, N.Y., just 76 miles away, it's quicker to drive than fly.
The Bush administration sought unsuccessfully to cut the subsidies, which keeps flights going to 107 communities spread across 31 states in the continental U.S. and 45 tiny towns in Alaska. But the Essential Air Services program enjoys strong support among lawmakers; in April, 22 senators wrote White House budget director Peter Orszag to demand more money for it.
"Simply put, the Essential Air Service program was a promise made to rural America, and a promise that must be kept," the senators wrote.
Among the reasons for big increase is the upheaval in the airline industry, including higher fuel prices, and the larger subsidies required to attract new carriers into the program after other airlines drop out.
Indeed, the subsidies also have a new benefactor in President Barack Obama, who requested the big increase in his February budget submission despite acknowledging that the program is inefficient.
Comment: Kathee sometimes travels to Des Moines. She figures that driving to Des Moines is a better deal (even with the travel time) than flying. My last business trip to Des Moines, 3 of us rented a car and drove!