Air service remains essential

Monday, February 16, 2004

The people of Southwest Nebraska and Northwest Kansas have been well-served by Essential Air Service funding. Because of the program -- known by the initials EAS -- McCook has been able to maintain scheduled daily air service for many years. After starting with Frontier Airlines in the 1960s, the scheduled service later switched to GP Express and is now provided by Great Lakes.

As the title states, air service is essential to rural areas located miles away from major hubs such as Denver International Airport.

So why bring all this up again? Because, as happens every year, the President's proposed budget for Fiscal 2005 calls for scaling back Essential Air subsidies to smaller airports.

If approved, the cutback would hit McCook hard. "We get close to $1.5 million a year in Essential Air subsidies," said City Manager John Bingham. "If the program is reduced, we would have to come up with close to $150,000. I don't know where the money would come from. There are so many other spending needs."

Other Nebraska cities are facing the same dilemma. Don Overman, board chairman of the Scotts Bluff County Airport Authority, told the Associated Press: "I would fight it (the reduction in EAS subsidies) all the way as I'm sure all the cities that are affected by the proposal will do. I don't think it's going to fly."

U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson, a McCook native, also believes Essential Air Service funding will survive the cutback attempt. "Every year, the administration has proposed cuts to the Essential Air Service, and every year we fight back those efforts. This year will not be any different."

That's encouraging. So are the efforts by Doug Vap, a McCookite who is leading efforts to preserve EAS funding and to expand McCook's role as an air service provider. Just a little over a week ago, Vap joined representatives from Kearney on a trip to Washington, D.C. The group was seeking support for efforts to make a Denver-Kansas City hub by way of McCook and Kearney.

Through the dual hub arrangement, passengers could board in McCook for flights to both Kansas City and Denver.

Within a week or a week and a half, Vap said McCook should receive a proposal from the U.S. Department of Transportation. That plan will specify which air service arrangement the department favors for McCook. The three options include one linking McCook, Kearney, Kansas City and Denver; one involving McCook, Grand Island, Denver and possibly St. Louis; or one keeping service as it is now connecting Denver, McCook and Grand Island.

After receiving the proposal, McCook will have 30 days to respond. McCook has been approached by both Kearney and Grand Island, and Vap has met with officials of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Now it's a wait and see process, but, through it all, the fact remains: For McCook, scheduled air service is essential.

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