U.S. Sens. Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Rep. Adrian Smith, whose congressional district sprawls across most of the state,
wrote U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao Oct. 16 over concerns about Department of Transportation plans to end the Essential Air Service program in two Nebraska communities searching for a new air carrier.
"The EAS program is crucial to the continuation of air service to rural Nebraska," their joint press release said.
They noted that the USDOT on Sept. 29 announced tentative plans to end EAS eligibility for Western Nebraska Regional Airport in Scottsbluff and Kearney Regional Airport in Kearney after their only carrier ended its service. They were among 27 facilities the department identified for possible EAS termination.
That followed the
August bankruptcy of Alaska-based regional carrier Peninsula Airways, also called PenAir, which had served some of those facilities through the EAS program that provides federal subsidies to maintain commercial air travel to many rural communities.
halted service to some cities, including Scottsbluff and Kearney where it was the only commercial carrier.
The EAS program is also a significant one for many state DOTs, which may sometimes directly own airfields and often provide financial support to airports in their states.
The Trump administration in its budget submission had proposed ending the program, but appropriators from both chambers have voted to keep it intact. However, the program also has qualifying requirements to be eligible for the EAS subsidies, including that a facility must have at least one carrier to provide commercial service.
Fischer serves on the Commerce Committee that oversees many aspects of the USDOT. She chairs its surface transportation and merchant marine panel and is a member of its aviation subcommittee. She previously said she "will continue to shore up support" in Congress for the EAS program.
The Nebraska lawmakers wrote that for the targeted airports in their state, "given the critical transportation services these airports provide to rural communities in Nebraska, we are concerned that DOT's plan to terminate EAS support in these areas will significantly impact travel for rural Nebraskans."
They said the USDOT order "comes as both Kearney and Scottsbluff are applying for a new EAS carrier" after PenAir ceased operations there on Sept. 11.
"We have been encouraged by DOT's efforts to work with these communities as they seek a new carrier to replace PenAir," the delegation added. "We encourage further cooperation between DOT, Kearney, Scottsbluff and North Platte, which was also affected by PenAir's cessation of service. Eliminating EAS support at this time for Kearney and Scottsbluff would worsen an already difficult situation."
DOT's order, they said, provides targeted communities with the opportunity to object to DOT's findings and to petition for a waiver.
They limited their comments to the airports in their own state, but their concerns could be reflected by supporters of other targeted rural airports.
"Given the negative impact the termination of EAS support would have on these communities, especially during their transition to a new carrier, we offer our support for any objections raised or petitions for waiver requested by Scottsbluff and Kearney airports," the Nebraska delegation told Chao.
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