Monday, September 11, 2017

Opinion: The country club at 20,000 ft; How the federal government subsidizes flights to Bar Harbor, Maine

by Philip Wegmann 

Philip Wegmann is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — Boarding the flight from Boston with non-stop service to Bar Harbor, Maine feels like joining a country club — an especially exclusive one that happens to cruise at 20,000 feet. The stewardess is warm. The snug turbo-prop plane comfortably seats three dozen. The passengers look like they've stepped out of a Vineyard Vines catalogue.

Compared to most commercial flights, this is glamorous, fitting what the clientele is accustomed to. It's also heavily subsidized: Like 174 other airports in the continental United States, the little airport at Bar Harbor profits from the Essential Air Service, a federal subsidy for rural airports. Making taxpayers subsidize air travel is a tough sell. It's an even harder case to make for flights to Bar Harbor, a chic playground for New England's rich.

Before President Jimmy Carter deregulated the airlines, Congress created EAS to maintain air travel in rural America. The idea was simple: Taxpayers would pick up a portion of the ticket price to connect rugged Alaskan villages and remote Western settlements to the rest of the country. That's how it worked for the better half of a century.

But there aren't any critical medicines in the cargo hold of your correspondent's current flight, just designer luggage. The yuppies and well-dressed retirees aren't bringing essential cargo like vaccines or transplants to a remote region. They've brought only the essentials for boating, fishing, and whale watching.

Subsidies for Bar Harbor, an airport that meets the technical specifications of a rural airport, give ammunition to fiscal hawks in the Trump administration, who have called for grounding the whole $175 million-dollar boondoggle. They argue that the 40-year old air service has become a wasteful Hindenburg that just needs to crash and burn already. And after reviewing ticket prices, it's hard to argue with that assessment.

Book a roundtrip flight to Bar Harbor in June, and the ticket will run you about $400. But that's not the whole cost, according to the Department of Transportation: The taxpayer kicks in an average of $248 to get Americans off to this New England summertime playground and back. It's not a bad deal for the blueblood on a budget. While their more successful colleagues might jet set on private planes, the merely wealthy can escape the city for a weekend thanks to the philanthropy of the U.S. taxpayer.

"If Trump wants to do something about infrastructure," says Susan, the elderly but lively lady sitting behind me, "I just can't think of anything worse for him to do than get rid of this." Travelling with her husband, Eric, she's a fierce defender of EAS. Susan, retired and an environmentalist, keeps mentioning infrastructure and economic development as we taxi. For her, EAS means regular and easy access to the family's summer home. When they worked in Washington, D.C. they made the drive north a couple times.

"But it'd take at least 13 hours up through all of New England," he says. Skipping a visit isn't an option because "with family and loved ones, you don't really have a choice." So, they fly, and the taxpayer picks up part of the tab.

What else could they do? You may think vacationing closer to home is an option, but that's probably because you've never enjoyed the stunning views from Cadillac Mountain or the breathtaking sunsets along the coast that fades to the west.

These vacationers on our SAAB 340 — not the ones roughing it next door in Acadia National Park, but the ones lodging at Bar Harbor Inn and Spa for $300-plus per night — live large. They spend mornings boating, hiking, and brunching in Lululemons and Patagonias before changing into Ralph Lauren for dining, socializing, and drinking during the evening.

It's a preppy paradise, where everything is expensive and nothing is ironic. Aside from the blueberry-infused vodkas and the gluten-free crab cakes, it's been this way ever since the roaring 1920s.

"This was their playground," says Debbie Dyer, head curator of the Bar Harbor Historical Society in downtown. "This was where they enjoyed the summer. This was where they let their hair down."

Robber barons with big names like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Morgan flocked to the area, competing to build ever more extravagant "summer cottages." George Rockefeller, for instance, didn't want to go to the sea. So the oil tycoon brought the sea to his family instead. He pumped ocean water into an outdoor swimming pool—a modern marvel at the time.

"You've got big bucks coming in today just like back then," Dyer says. "But the difference is that a lot of the real money stays out there on the water. The rich come in for the scenery and then sail away."

The old money also paid its own way. Membership in the local yachting society seems reserved exclusively for tech CEOs, oil princelings, and the occasional Bond villain. Up to a dozen good sized boats regularly lay anchored in and around the harbor. The locals who stay here year-round have grown accustomed to the seasonal migration of the wealth, and yacht watching is good fun.

"Now look, that helicopter didn't land there while it was here," says Charles Pippen sitting in his office overlooking the bay. As harbormaster, Pippen decides what yachts anchor and which cruise ships dock. He knows everything that goes on inside his harbor, and he knows that aircraft, the stylish Bell 206A JetRanger, came into port lashed to the stern of a 163-foot super yacht. Only afterwards did the helicopter subsequently land on the front page of the local newspaper.

But helicopters atop yachts aren't unusual in Bar Harbor. "A lot of yacht owners also happen to be jet owners," Pippen explains. "They'll fly to meet the boat because they don't have time to commute. The big owners come into the airport on private planes and then sometimes catch helicopter to their boats."

Do they ever take a ride on an EAS airline? Do they ever catch a ride subsidized by Uncle Sam? "Eh, probably not," Pippen says, "but some of their crewmembers fly commercial to get here."

So, now we see the economic development brought by EAS and defended so doggedly by the Maine congressional delegation. Among other things, they've got to make sure the super wealthy have all hands on deck before they put their yachts out to sea. And while they wouldn't go on the record for this article, Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins have held this line.

When Trump's budget chief put EAS in his sights, the pair scrambled to its defense. Writing in an April 6 letter and accompanied by 20 other senators, King warned that, without federal subsidy, EAS communities would lose "access to potentially lifesaving medical devices" and experience "decreased economic opportunity."

The senators' medical-needs argument may hold true for little places like Presque Isle, a remote town in Maine 350 miles from civilization. It's harder to swallow, though, in Bar Harbor, which has award-winning medical providers. Mount Desert Island Hospital, centrally located at 10 Wayman Lane, remains open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Second, as a chatty blonde barista named Leah explains, Bangor International Airport is barely 50 miles away. "Uh, I live there," she says while brewing espresso shots and steaming milk. "The drive from Bangor is maybe an hour, and it's not bad. I do it five days a week for my shift here."

It's not as if EAS is Bar Harbor's only source of federal subsidy, either. A few years back, Sens. King and Collins announced a $1.6 million federal grant for the taxiway there. After all, there are some expensive private jets landing there, too, and they need the pavement. Collins and King announced still another $425,000 federal grant just last year.

If Congress eliminated EAS or these federal grants tomorrow, Bar Harbor wouldn't be isolated. Tourists could still whale-watch and yacht. They'd just have to make an hour drive from the nearby airport. If that's too much a burden, the federal government could literally Uber those passengers to Bar Harbor from Bangor for less than half what it costs to fly them. Passengers might even benefit from a road trip through this part of scenic Downeast Maine.

Alternatively, the rich people who fly into Bar Harbor could pay for the airport themselves. The rural poor aren't the ones booking family vacations thanks to the Essential Air Service. "It's really a subsidy used entirely by the well-off," argues Eli Lehrer, president of the conservative R Street Institute. "The main advantage is letting some people skip the drive and avoid long security lines."

The manager of Bar Harbor Airport, Brad Madeira, knows those complaints. He's heard them all before. Thirty minutes before the last flight out of town Friday, in a little office that doubles as the airport's fire department, Madeira responds to rapid fire questions with a hint of a Boston accent. He doesn't focus on the cost of the program, which he admits is "an expensive program at first glance." He doesn't even stress the essential nature of the subsidies, which he admits the airport could probably operate without. Instead, Madeira makes an argument about the corrosive nature of Megalopolises.

"The program really goes to the core of American values, if you think about," the manager of the little airport insists. "What are we all about around here? Are we all just going to live in the middle of the city? Places like this wouldn't be the same without contact with the rest of the country because of Essential Air."

It's a bit detached, but that's still the most able and honest defense of federal subsidies for flights to an expensive resort town. Afraid of missing the day's last flight to Boston, your correspondent cuts short the interviews 20 minutes before wheels up. But Madeira is completely confident that Congress won't miss the deadline for funding the Essential Air Service, and he's probably right.

Philip Wegmann is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.

Original article  ➤

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