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Committee approves federal funding for airports

ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — A federal program that supports passenger air service at four small Mississippi airports is being funded in an appropriations bill that gained committee approval late yesterday, according to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

Continued funding for the Essential Air Service (EAS) program, which benefits the Greenville, Hattiesburg/Laurel, Meridian and Tupelo airports, is included in the FY2012 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill that has been approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Cochran, who is vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said, “It is too early to determine the final funding level for the Essential Air Service for FY2012, but I am pleased that the Senate Appropriations Committee has agreed to continue the program and address some of the challenges facing the program.”

EAS was created by Congress as an incentive for carriers to continue passenger air service to small communities that are not near to larger regional airports.  It was established after the federal deregulation of the airline industry more than 30 years ago.

Under the Senate bill, EAS would receive $193 million in FY2012, including a $143-million appropriation and $50 million in mandatory funding derived from so-called “overflight fees.” This funding is $6.7 million less than FY2011 funding.

Cochran said the bill notes the committee’s concerns about controlling the cost of the program and includes provisions requested by the administration to try to curtail the cost of the program. These provisions would limit EAS funding to communities within the 48 contiguous states that have received EAS subsidies at any point from Sept. 30, 2010, through Sept. 30, 2011, including carriers that provide a notice of intent to terminate service within 90 days of the end of that period. Another provision would repeal the requirement that carriers use 15-passenger seat aircraft, which would allow carriers to use smaller aircraft where appropriate.

Also of interest to Mississippi, the committee provided $3.5 billion for Federal Aviation Administration Airport Improvement Program grants.  This funding is level with FY2011 funding.  Numerous airports in Mississippi have been awarded AIP grants to carry out infrastructure and security improvements.

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