Small cities to Trump: Don't kill our airline services

Meghan Reeder | CNBC

When software engineer Joe Knipp flies into Pueblo, Colorado for work he knows the plane will be small, but the impact on his life will be huge.

"I can get here, save some time and save some money," said Knipp who regularly flies into Denver then boards a 9 seat Beechcraft 1900 for the 35 minute flight into Pueblo. If Great Lakes Aviation did not offer the flight, Knipp would have to drive more than two hours from Denver.

"Time is money," he said.

The money helping Great Lakes Aviation offer flights three times a day to Pueblo comes from the Essential Air Service (EAS) program run by the U.S. Department of Transportation. It was a program created in 1978 when airlines first deregulated and Washington wanted to ensure rural America would have commercial air service. Since then the program's budget he risen to more than a quarter billion dollars.

When President Donald Trump submitted his first budget proposal in March, he earmarked zero dollars for EAS. In short, he wanted to kill it. While the program remains alive and funded through the government's omnibus spending bill, some in Congress like U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican from California, think EAS is a prime example of government waste.

"If we can't kill this program, which is the least essential of any federal programs we are never going to get control on a budget that is completely out of control and well on its way to bankrupting our country," said McClintock.

Meghan Reeder | CNBC

This is not the first time McClintock and others have called for ending subsidies that enable airline service to small cities like Decatur, Illinois and Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

Still the EAS program has not only survived, the money allocated for it has actually quadrupled over the last decade. It now covers 173 cities in 35 states, including 60 cities in Alaska where airline service is the only way in or out many far flung locations.

"All the basic elements that you and I take for granted every day in those communities are completely dependent upon aviation to receive those," said John Binder with the Alaska Department of Transportation.

For other cities the EAS program may not be about immediate needs, but is considered critical to convincing companies to locate facilities in rural areas.

"A CEO knows that they can take their company anywhere," said Jeff Shaw, president of the Pueblo Economic Development Commission. "they need to know they have the ability to get out, they have the ability to travel."