Elimination of the federal Essential Air Service (EAS) program, as proposed by Sen. John McCain last week, would have a detrimental effect on travel to and from the least populated areas of Kodiak Island, with the sole affected carrier saying it would no longer be able to offer scheduled service to at least 11 stops.

“I certainly can’t afford to run the schedules to the water stops without the subsidy,” Island Air owner Bob Stanford said. “I would have to terminate it immediately.”

The water stops are Kitoi Bay, Seal Bay, Port Williams, Port Bailey, Uganik, West Point, Zachar Bay, Amook Island, Olga Bay, Moser Bay and Alitak.

“Out of the 11 water stops, nine of them have tourism businesses operating within a very close proximity of that water stop,” Stanford said.

Of the other two water stops, Kitoi Bay has a large fish hatchery and Alitak has a large cannery.

Island Air also receives an EAS subsidy for flying to the village of Karluk.

Without scheduled flights, people in these far-flung areas would have to charter flights at higher cost.

“When they’re already struggling to hold on, these scheduled flights are imperative for survival,” Stanford said. “What money they are going to save by taking the axe to the roots, they are going to create infinitely more pain and cost than the actual cost of the program.”

The EAS program was created in 1978 at the time of airline deregulation to guarantee that the least populated areas with air service would continue to receive a minimum standard of scheduled flights, even if it was not profitable for an air carrier.

Wes Osowski, owner and operator of Servant Air, which has also received EAS subsidies in the past, said the effect on air carriers would be that they would just stop going to places where they would operate at a loss.

“We would generate revenue by other means just to keep the doors open,” he said.

Should the EAS program be cut, Osowski said, “The people in Akhiok, the people in Karluk, the people at all the water stops right now are going to get hosed.

“And those people, they count on it, they rely on it,” Osowski said. “The rural communities around this island are going to get the short end of the stick.”

The village of Akhiok goes back and forth on its need for EAS support, depending on the two-year bid to provide air services there. Currently the stop does not draw EAS funding.

“Their population is borderline to support scheduled travel,” Stanford said.

“We were subsidized to run (the service) for a couple of years,” Osowski said. “We built infrastructure, we got things established and became comfortable with the run and when it came up for re-bid, we just weren’t willing to walk away from it.

“We’re doing it for just the revenue it generates.”

Every Kodiak area village and the 11 water stops are on the list for potential EAS support. However, the demand for air service to Larsen Bay, Port Lions, Old Harbor and Ouzinkie is above the level that would trigger the subsidies.

Even so, Stanford fears that should Kodiak Island villages lose population, as has been the trend, more villages will need the EAS subsidy in the future.

Alaska has 44 communities that benefit from EAS funding. According to information from the U.S Department of Transportation’s aviation analysis website, updated to May 2010, Alaska took in a total of $12,564,599 in subsidies from the EAS program. Kodiak’s portion was $172,538.

In comments in the U.S. Senate Monday, McCain said the $200 million EAS program began as a temporary government initiative of a few million dollars, but has now become permanent. McCain said the program should be cut as a first step in getting government spending under control and balancing the federal budget.

“A lot of Americans on Nov. 2 said they wanted us to stop spending on things that are not absolutely essential,” McCain said. “Although this program is called the Essential Air Service, in my view, it is far from ‘essential.’ But the American people spoke on Nov. 2. They said stop the spending. Stop the programs that are either unnecessary, have grown too much, are unwise, or even make some tough decisions.”

In response to McCain’s amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill eliminating the EAS, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich signed a letter with three other U.S. senators stating that eliminating the EAS program would have devastating effects on the economy of rural communities.

McCain fired back Monday saying the real devastation to the whole economy would be to continue to mortgage children’s and grandchildren’s futures through a massive government debt.

Staff members of both Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Begich have been in contact with Stanford to get information to build a case against eliminating the program.

Stanford has been told that the amendment will be voted on later this week or early next week.

“I know that they are actively involved in retaining this program because it’s a matter of survival for Alaskans,” he said.

Even so, Stanford has some sympathy for McCain’s argument.

“There is no question that this country has to make cuts,” Stanford said. “Is there potential cuts available for any program, including this one? Absolutely. There are adjustments that can be made.

“What isn’t factored in is that we don’t have options. That’s the problem,” Stanford said. “It isn’t driving your car and going a little further.”

Osowski agreed.

“Could it use a review?” Osowski asked. “Probably. It was something done back in the ’70s. I’m sure there are some communities that could maybe get by without it.”

People can also join together to overcome the obstacle, sharing the cost of chartering a plane, for instance, Osowski said. In this way the loss of the service could bring people together.

“Bottom line, the initial reaction is yes, there’s going to be communities that dry up and blow away,” Osowski said. “There are other ways to get a service but it is nowhere near as cost effective. And nowhere near as reliable.”

Mirror writer Wes Hanna can be reached via e-mail at whanna@kodiakdailymirror.com.

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