Legislation Seeks to Save Hawai‘i’s Essential Air Service from Cuts

May 26, 2017, 11:54 AM HST · Updated May 26, 11:56 AM
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After the release of President Donald Trump’s budget request this week, Senators Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaiʻi) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) introduced the Keeping Our Commitment to Essential Air Service Act. The legislation aims to prevent proposed budget cuts to air service for over 170 small community airports nationwide by reauthorizing program funding through 2022.

The historic Kalaupapa settlement. Courtesy file photo: Office of US Senator Mazie Hirono.

“Serving approximately 20,000 people in Hawaiʻi last year alone, EAS provides reliable and affordable air transportation that is vital to the communities like Kalaupapa and Waimea. President Trump’s deep cuts to EAS would critically impact individuals in these communities who depend on air travel to get the health care they need and support local commerce and jobs,” said Senator Hirono. “This is why I introduced this bill with Senator Sullivan– helping to ensure our rural residents and their families continue to have access to air service which is their lifeline.”

“Aviation is absolutely essential to reaching the many remote communities across Alaska’s vast, geographically diverse territory,” said Senator Sullivan. “Essential Air Service provides the only means of transportation for residents in more than 60 Alaska communities—more than one-third of the communities served nationwide. There are no roads or highways connecting these Americans to the rest of the country—just an airstrip. We must work to maintain this strong and safe aviation network which supports jobs and economic opportunities for Americans living in rural areas.”

Congress established EAS to ensure that small communities that were served by air carriers before deregulation of the industry in the 1970s would continue to receive scheduled passenger service, with subsidies if necessary.

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Sen. Hirono said President Trump’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget proposal would eliminate this funding for the program which “could force rural airports to suspend service and residents to drive hundreds of miles to reach the nearest major airport reducing access to medical care, hurting tourism and local commerce.”

The EAS Act was introduced with the following original cosponsors: Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

“As an island state, air travel is critical to our economy and our daily lives,” said Senator Schatz. “Our bill protects funding that will help maintain air travel servicing Kalaupapa and Waimea.”

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“Essential Air Service is a lifeline for many communities in rural Alaska. Bringing vital air service to small communities, this program is critical for the health, welfare, and safety of a state like Alaska with such a limited road system. I will never stop fighting to protect this program – truly an essential part of many Alaskans’ everyday life,” said Senator Murkowski.

Under President Trump’s budget, EAS would lose $175 million of funding currently appropriated by Congress in addition to amounts funded through overflight fees. This cut represent over half of EAS total funding. The EAS Act reauthorizes the Congressional appropriation of $175 million annually through FY 2022. EAS funding is currently set to expire on Sept. 30, 2017.

“Air transportation is Kalaupapa’s lifeline to the outside world – not only for us residents who need to travel for medical needs and to conduct personal business in Honolulu, but also to see our families and to allow family members and friends to visit us and pay respects to the graves of their relatives who died here” said Clarence “Boogie” Kahilihiwa, President of Ka ‘Ohana O Kalaupapa. “We fully support Senator Hirono’s bill to reauthorize the Essential Air Service program which will ensure air travel continues to be available for Kalaupapa residents and appreciate her longstanding leadership in support of our community.”

“The Essential Air Service program has been critical to maintaining Waimea-Kohala Airport as a gateway for Kohala District communities to the rest of our state” said Dale Suezaki, Chair of the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce. “We fully support Sen. Hirono’s bill to save the program from proposed cuts and thank her for standing up for our communities who rely on the airport to access potentially life-saving medical services as well as support local businesses and jobs.”

“The Essential Air Service program connects small and rural communities to the rest of the world,” said Kevin M. Burke, President and CEO of Airports Council International – North America. “Maintaining these connections is especially important in today’s environment where airports across the country, especially small ones, have seen their air service options severely impacted by airline consolidation, capacity reductions, and increased airfares. We applaud Senators Hirono and Sullivan for introducing this bill to help ensure that people living in rural areas continue to have access to the national aviation system.”

Currently, Kalaupapa and Waimea-Kohala Airports receive subsidized air services under EAS from Makani Kai Air and Mokulele Airlines respectively. In 2016, approximately 11,000 passengers flew on Makani Kai Air from Kalaupapa and 9,000 flew Mokulele Airlines from Waimea. This measure would help ensure these communities would continue to access air service through EAS.

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