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Blunt seeks to retain subsidies for regional airports, including 4 in Missouri, 3 in Illinois

File photo | Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

Four regional airports in Missouri and three in Illinois could find their operations at risk if the Congress approves President Donald Trump’s plan to end the federal subsidies they’ve received for decades.

But Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt is taking on Trump. “While a president has the right to propose cuts in spending, the Constitution gives Congress the power to actually set spending,” he said at a hearing he chaired Thursday in Washington.

The money comes from the federal Essential Air Service program, which is part of the Department of Transportation and subsidizes air carrier service for designated small airports deemed crucial to rural Americans and businesses. Trump has called for eliminating the program, which currently allocates about $288 million a year to more than 170 regional airports around the country, including facilities in Cape

Girardeau, Kirksville and Quincy.

Bruce Loy, who manages the publicly owned regional airport in Cape Girardeau, said its $2.1 million federal subsidy is vital. The money covers a hefty chunk of the cost for regional carrier Cape Air to run 24 flights a week to St. Louis Lambert International Airport. That means the ticket price can be as low as $29. 

“The EAS essentially connects rural America to the air transportation system throughout the United States,” Loy said.

Combined, Missouri’s airports receive a little less than $8 million in subsidies. Aside from Cape Girardeau, they include Joplin, Kirksville (home of Truman State University) and the regional airport that serves Fort Leonard Wood, according to the federal Congressional Research Service.

A similar sum goes to the three Illinois regional airports that qualify for the program: Quincy/Hannibal Airport, Marion and Decatur.

Control tower at Cape Girardeau Regional Airport
Credit Courtesy of the Cape Girardeau Regional Aiport's website
The control tower at Cape Girardeau Regional Airport

Blunt, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security, spoke at Thursday’s hearing, which was about the broader issue of rural airports. In his opening remarks, he cited the Waynesville-St. Robert Regional Airport at Forney Field, which serves Fort Leonard Wood, as a prime example of the importance of maintaining commercial air service in rural areas. 

“Located in central Missouri, this joint-use facility provides reliable, accessible air service for members of the military serving on-post and thousands of their family members who attend annually for training graduations,” Blunt said. “It also links the local businesses in Ft. Leonard Wood’s surrounding communities to Lambert International in St. Louis, and supports tourism for the Mahaffey Museum Complex.”

Blunt noted that previous presidents, including Democrat Barack Obama, also have sought to trim or largely eliminate the regional airport subsidies, with the exception of Alaska and Hawaii. That’s because of the program’s sharply rising costs, which were recently detailed in a study released by the Congressional Research Service.

“In constant 2016 dollars, spending has increased 600 percent since 1996 and 132 percent since 2008,” the study said.  The chief reasons cited for the spike in cost were the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the economic downturn in 2008.

Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill sides with Blunt on wanting to keep the airports open.

“Completely eliminating the Essential Air Service program would have dramatic consequences for the hundreds of thousands of folks in small towns and rural communities across Missouri who don’t live near large commercial airports, and would be a huge blow to their communities’ ability to attract employers and boost economic development,” she said in a statement. “I’m particularly concerned about the impact of this proposal on the Fort Leonard Wood community, where this program helps our service members visit family back home and allows the base to operate as a critical hub for the Army.”

Blunt also pointed Thursday to the program’s economic impact: “It’s estimated that the overall economic impact of reliable air service in small communities is roughly $121 billion (a year), and it supports over 1.1 million jobs.”

The program’s allies in the U.S. House include U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Tarkio, whose district includes most of northern Missouri, including Kirksville. Graves sits on the House Subcommittee on Aviation, which oversees the Essential Air Service program.

Follow Jo on Twitter: @jmannies

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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