Here’s another unusual way that President Trump is rewarding some of the communities that gave him such strong support: He wants to eliminate commercial air service to much of rural America.
Near us, that means the commercial flights serving the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport at Weyers Cave and the Greenbrier Valley Airport at Lewisburg, West Virginia.
True, Trump’s proposed budget doesn’t specifically say there won’t be commercial flights to Weyers Cave and Lewisburg – but it does eliminate the federal program that makes them possible, so it’s really a distinction without a difference.
What’s at issue here is an obscure government program that makes a big difference in many small communities across the country.
The Essential Air Service program was part of the grand bargain that led to airline deregulation in 1978. Airlines got “almost total freedom” – in the words of the U.S. Department of Transportation – to decide which markets to serve and what fares to charge. The airlines were clearly the winners in that arrangement; the losers were small communities whose flights weren’t nearly as profitable.
To protect those communities, the federal government created the Essential Air Service program – which subsidizes “a minimal level of scheduled air service.” This program was intended to end after ten years, but remains in place nearly 40 years later, for all the obvious reasons. It’s hard to get rid of any government program – and Congress certainly isn’t keen on the political (and economic) repercussions of effectively ending commercial air service to lots of communities.
The program currently costs $175 million and serves 115 airports in the lower 48 states (plus 60 in Alaska, where air travel is often the only way to travel). In Virginia, the only airport covered by the program is the one at Weyers Cave. Next door in West Virginia, five airports are covered – Beckley, Clarksburg/Fairmont, Lewisburg, Morgantown and Parkersburg.
Because the program is a subsidy, it’s always drawn a skeptical eye from those who don’t think the federal government should be subsidizing much of anything. From time to time, those skeptics call attention to certain subsidized airports that are pretty close to larger ones and ask whether we should just let those smaller airports go. If the 20,000 passengers each year at the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport aren’t enough to support commercial air service, well, that’s just the way the free market is. Let them go to Charlottesville. Or Roanoke. Or Dulles. Or let the state subsidize it if it’s so important.
That kind of cold-eyed, bottom-line ideological purity, though, runs headlong into the practicalities of local economies. Airports are convenient for leisure travelers, but essential for the business community – and economic development. Hence the first word of “Essential Air Service.” The program has historically survived because the members of Congress who are most naturally inclined toward cutting federal spending – Republicans – are also the ones who represent most of the communities where these subsidized airports are. They’d hear from their business communities – one of their natural constituencies – if they pulled their air service subsidies.
One of the big problems Roanoke has when it comes to competing for economic development prospects is air service. Businesses complain there aren’t enough direct flights to the places their people need to go. Now imagine the challenge of, say, the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport, where you have just one option: Do you want to fly to Charlotte, or do you want to fly to Charlotte?
That’s what makes Trump’s decision to zero out Essential Air Service so curious. These subsidized airports are overwhelmingly in communities he won – and won big. He took nearly 72 percent in Augusta County, where Weyers Cave is. He took 68 percent in Greenbrier County. West Virginia, in fact, was his best state. So why does he want to shut down air service to five of the state’s airports?
This proposal is of a piece with other items in Trump’s budget – or rather, not in his budget. He wants to cut Amtrak’s long-distance routes – which would mean an end to the train that runs through Clifton Forge, and half the trains through Lynchburg. He wants to eliminate the agency that provides funding for economic development infrastructure in rural (and inner-city) America – the Economic Development Administration. He wants to eliminate the agency specifically charged with economic development in Appalachia – the Appalachian Regional Commission.
If you’re in Alleghany County, Virginia, you’re triply out of luck – no Amtrak, no economic development funding from either of the two agencies you could have turned to. If you’re in Greenbrier County, West Virginia – no commercial air service, no economic development funding, either.
If you’re in Beckley, West Virginia, you’re out of luck four ways – no Amtrak, no commercial air service, and no access to ARC or the EDA. Make that five ways: Trump promised to invest in clean coal research, but his budget reduces federal funding for the technology that really could help save some coal jobs. Or six ways: Trump also zeroes out the program that turns abandoned mine sites into marketable industrial sites. Yet Raleigh County gave more than 74 percent of its votes to Trump.
Why is Trump hurting the very localities that backed him so strongly? This is not the platform he ran on. It is, however, the platform of The Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank whose budget blueprint he has adopted as his own.
Trump never came to any of these localities and said that making America great would involve shutting down their air service or train service and pulling their economic development funds. He did say he would cut federal spending, without really saying how. Yet Trump’s budget doesn’t really cut spending. His overall budget is actually a little higher than the present one – it just rearranges priorities. More money for the military, the border wall, and charter schools, and less or sometimes no money for almost everything else. So don’t think cutting these air subsidies will somehow help the federal deficit. It won’t.
It just makes it harder for those localities to attract jobs.