Rural Airport Subsidies

How Far Is Too Far?

As the crow flies, the Hagerstown Regional Airport (HGR) in Maryland is 64 miles from the much busier runways of Baltimore Washington International (BWI), to its east. How far a drive is it, though? And more importantly, how far is it in political terms?

Under the Essential Air Service program enacted in 1978, federal subsidies are given to rural airports more than 70 driving miles from the nearest medium or large hub, to help them stay in business. The formula to calculate that distance is lost to history, but Hagerstown qualified—that is, until July 22, when it got caught up in the battle over FAA reauthorization. House Republicans led by Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-FL), proposed a new minimum radius of 90 miles, which would have deprived Hagerstown and 12 other small airports (of the 140 subsidized under the Essential Air Service program) of federal funding. Even the 90-mile figure  was a compromise; in April the EAS was proposed for complete elimination by 2013. Hagerstown is serviced by Cape Air, which receives a $1.2 million per year subsidy for largely empty flights. The other 12 airports potentially affected by competing versions of EAS funding are Athens, Georgia; Morgantown, West Virginia; Glendive, Montana; Alamogordo, New Mexico; Ely, Nevada; Jamestown, New York; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Jackson, Tennessee; and four in Pennsylvania: Johnstown, Bradford, Lancaster, and Franklin/Oil City.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee did not return calls last week in response to a query as to how the 90-mile limit was chosen. Even the 70-mile rule has been subject to political gerrymandering over the years. In 2003, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania (at the time, a Republican) unveiled the Essential Air Service Eligibility Fairness Act, fairness being defined as favoring constituents near the Lancaster Airport, 66 miles from Philadelphia International. In a press release crowing its passage, Specter said he had ensured “the yardstick for measuring the distance would change.” The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) previously calculated the distance using Pennsylvania Route 30, but the mandated route was changed to the Penn Turnpike, making the distance 80 miles. Since then Lancaster has qualified for $1.3 million every year.

Aerial view of Hagerstown Regional (HGR) Photo: HGR

In Maryland, Senators Benjamin Cardin and Barbara Mikulski sponsored similar legislation to qualify Hagerstown, and in 2007, South Dakota’s Brookings Airport was left to state, rather than federal, officials to decide.

So how far is BWI, really, from Hagerstown? By the airport authority’s measure, the distance is 76.1 miles, or a one hour 22-minute drive, which would be disqualified under the 90-mile rule. Of course, the DOT says the closest hub to Hagerstown is Washington Dulles International (IAD) in Virginia at 57 miles, while mapping and airline Web sites say it’s up to 73 miles, but that’s another Senator’s backyard.

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