RUTLAND - Recent news about a U.S. House bill that would eliminate passenger subsidies-called essential air services or EAS-to rural airports, including the state-owned Rutland Southern Vermont Regional Airport, has some local travelers concerned about the airport's future.
In the U.S. Senate, members' own version of the controversial House bill goes in the other direction with increased funding for EAS.
The Rutland airport receives $797,000 a year in EAS funding.
Some fiscally conservative critics say the EAS funding is a form of "corporate welfare" that uses taxpayer funds to subsidize airlines like Rutland's Cape Air passenger service to Boston's Logan Airport. However, other rural airports receive triple the amount of similar EAS funding compared to Rutland.
At the Rutland airport, Massachusetts-based Cape Air is aligned with Jet Blue and, with its link between Rutland to Boston, provides cheaper passenger service to, say, Orlando, Fla., than via the Burlington and Albany international airports. Together, JetBlue and Cape Air also provide the only commercial airline service to Vermont's popular Killington recreation region.
Low fares and convenient connections from across the country have been in place at the airport since 2007.
According to the office of U.S. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), the majority of House members voted to eliminate $200 million for essential air service. Welch said he voted against the cuts. He stressed that he supports continued airline subsidies to rural airports; he said that Rutland is essential to southern Vermont.
"The Rutland regional airport has been extremely important to us. It's also been a very efficient operation. Rutland has had the greatest number of passenger enplanements, thanks to the EAS program, since 1985," Welch said.
The year 1985, was the year Precision Air, a partner with Eastern Airlines, left the Rutland airport. It was tough going during the years following Precision's departure and Eastern's final dissolution.
In the years between Precision and Cape Air, the airport had spotty big hub service from servers such as Colgan Air.
Restaurant service at the airport has been spotty, too. Currently, only terminal vending machines serve the hunger-pangs of passengers.
But with Cape Air's robust commitment to southern Vermont passenger service-and its advantageous JetBlue partnership-the Rutland airport was back on rising-star status.
Since the 1990s, more passengers-hailing from Addison to Bennington counties, even Washington County, N.Y.-have discovered the airport's no-hassle free parking, friendly, fast security service, and relaxed personal comfort level. Such passenger kudos are a big plus in favor of the airport's rising-star status.
Meanwhile, at the Rutland airport, administrators and staff are taking a wait-and-see approach to the proposed capitol-dome EAS cuts.
"I'm hopeful, but of course it's not a done deal yet," said airport manager David E. Carman. "I just can't say much about it. Congressman Welch and Senators Leahy and Sanders are very supportive of the airport. But we have to wait and see what happens in the coming days."
It is especially frustrating to Carman since the Rutland airport has seen its best year since 1985 in commercial passenger flights. While he won't admit, Carman's management vision is an essential part of the airport's success story.
Over 10,000 passengers flew through the Rutland airport in 2010, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. And that number doesn't even include an increase in business jets using the airport.
Carman credits a lot of the recent success to Cape Air, based in Hyannis, Mass., and the southern Vermont airport's ease of access as a destination.
"Cape Air is a very reliable airline," he said. "With three flights a day here, they can move passengers aboard their fleet of Cessna 402s."
Cape Air's fleet of Cessna 402s was apparently a good investment.
The twin-piston driven, nine-seat aircraft has an excellent safety record. For the short one-hour hop from Rutland to Boston, the Cape Air Cessna 402 is a comfortable aircraft for passengers typically squeamish of propeller aircraft. And if there's a weather problem for the Cessnas, Cape Air provides comfortable ground transportation to Boston-Logan or other regional airports for on-time connections.
On the subject of business conducted through the airport, Carman noted that he recently met a California businessman who regularly flies between Los Angeles and Rutland to deal with commercial interests here.
"He said that if the airline service didn't exist, he'd have to spend more money and drive from Boston or Albany to conduct business in Rutland County, jeopardizing business relationships," Carman said. "That's why an airport like this one is essential for many local businesses. It's also an avenue through which local businesses to expand."
Carman noted that recent navigation-infrastructure upgrades at the airport have increased its value among pilots and commercial air interests. It also makes the airport more accessible in inclement weather and expands safety margins for pilots.
"We're in the midst of completing our instrument landing system or ILS," he said. "It will be completed next year."
According to Carman, an ILS system is a ground-based instrument approach system that provides precision guidance to an aircraft approaching and landing on a runway. It uses a combination of radio signals and lighting arrays during low ceilings or reduced visibility due to fog, rain, or blowing snow.
Currently the EAS subsidy provided approximately $50 to $80 per passenger enplanement, which is relatively low compared to the national average.
Carman said that "air service is a critical component for economic development as it links us to the outside world. Any reduction in service would be detrimental to the business community."
For instance, the time and money a company saves by having an employee fly out of Rutland can equate to hundreds of dollars and time savings-these savings add up to a business located in our area.
Carman admits that elimination of the ESA subsidy to Cape Air would hurt the airport's ability to meet the community's needs, but it would not be a death blow to the airport as has been incorrectly reported elsewhere.
"The airport is a state-owned and operated airport, and we would continue to serve freight, business, charter, and general aviation flights," he said.
Carman said that EAS funding elimination would set the airport's passenger service back several years.
According to Andrew Bonney, vice president of Cape Air, the flight schedule "would not be sustainable" without EAS.