Saturday, July 27, 2013

Eastern Montana towns favor East Coast airline

Eastern Montana towns dependent on federal Essential Air Service flights to Billings are lining up behind an East Coast airline to replace departing Silver Airways.

Representatives from Glasgow, Glendive, Havre, Sidney and Wolf Point agreed unanimously Thursday that Cape Air, of Hyannis, Mass., would be the preferred provider of subsidized Essential Air Service. Cape Air has proposed dedicating nine-seat Cessna 402 planes to serve each community. All seats on all flights would cost $49, according the documents obtained by The Gazette.

Communities currently serviced by Silver Airways share a 19-seat plane. Cape Air would make more round trips to Billings each day.

Montana communities using Essential Air Service have endured a bumpy ride over the years. Some flights abruptly halted in 2008 when Big Sky Airlines folded. The routes were taken over by Great Lakes Aviation, but Great Lakes routed passengers to Denver, while most preferred Billings. Great Lakes flights were sometimes delayed or canceled.

Silver Airways won the contract for Montana’s EAS routes in 2011, but chose not to bid for them this year. The Department of Transportation has chosen to keep Silver Airways on Montana routes until late October, when a replacement airline is expected.

Although Montana EAS communities prefer Cape Air, the federal Department of Transportation decides which airline receives the contract.

Congress has tried to cut or eliminate the Essential Air Service program more than once. In 2011, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and other rural lawmakers rallied to defeat a proposal to eliminate EAS from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

In 2012, House lawmakers attempted to eliminate EAS as part of a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration. Rural Senate lawmakers turned back that attempt.

This year, House and Senate lawmakers are again at odds over EAS. House lawmakers are proposing a $46 million cut to the program. The Senate wants to preserve EAS.