RAA cautiously optimistic about Obama team's EAS stance

By Mary Kirby

US trade group the Regional Airline Association (RAA) is expressing cautious optimism that the country's essential air service (EAS) programme will be strengthened under President Barack Obama's administration.

"Already now, the current administration is better than the prior administration," RAA president Roger Cohen tells ATI. He points to the Obama team's "brief mentions of the [EAS] programme in the budget".

The administration's proposed budget would increase funding for EAS by $55 million.

By contrast, says Cohen: "You'd be hard pressed to be worse [than the Bush administration]. They were pretty candid, particularly on the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) level, that they didn't want to support this programme.

"So their heart wasn't in it. And you see what happened. The rapid run up in fuel costs [in 2008] was not of their making, but at the same time they needed to be better attuned."

In order to make vital changes "that will restore health to the EAS system", says the RAA, the organization proposes, among other things, an increase in overall programme funding by retaining the current standing appropriation of $50 million and authorizing and appropriating an additional $150 million for FY2009, bringing total programme funding to $200 million.

It also seeks an increase in the per-passenger subsidy cap to $300 per-passenger in order to accommodate unavoidable programme cost increases associated with fuel.

As currently proposed, FAA reauthorization legislation in the House of Representatives would provide for $200 million in funding while modifying the EAS subsidy formula to reflect the cost of fuel retroactively.

"In general, Congress has been very supportive of the [EAS] programme historically and Congress so far, particularly Congressman James Oberstar and the House transportation and infrastructure committee, have been very supportive of increasing the funding. They have also tried to make some proposals. Some will help. Some won't," says Cohen.

He adds: "I think the most critical thing is that everybody's attitude, their heads, hearts and wallets all have to be in alignment here. That's the federal government, the communities, the airlines. People really have to want to make it work."

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