Reliable air service to rural areas is not simply a luxury or a convenience, it's a necessity. Ask any town manager or mayor of a small community in Maine how critical aviation is to economic development. Anyone from the St. John Valley or Washington County could attest to the vital role aviation plays in the moving of people and goods to and from their area. For many in our home state, rural air service provides an irreplaceable link between local small businesses and people to global economies and cultures.
Yet despite the necessity of rural air service and the growth of the aviation industry over the past thirty years, many small communities and remote areas continue to face a paucity of transportation options. Since the deregulation of the airline industry in 1978, many communities across the country have experienced a decline in flights and size of aircraft while seeing an increase in fares. More than 300 have lost air service altogether.
In an effort to improve airline service to rural areas, I recently joined with Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) to introduce the Rural Aviation Improvement Act of 2009. By improving the long-underfunded Essential Air Service (EAS) program, this legislation would bring stability to rural areas in terms of air service and encourage small communities to build relationships with air carriers who serve them.
After the implementation of the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978, EAS was founded to ensure that small communities that were served by commercial air carriers before deregulation maintain a minimal level of scheduled air service. Four of the nation's 145 EAS airports are in Maine - Augusta, Bar Harbor, Rockland, and Presque Isle. Increasingly, EAS has been plagued with a decline in the number of airlines willing to provide this critical link to the national transportation network. I have long worked diligently to increase rural air service to guarantee that Maine is connected to the nation's transportation network.
Continuing this tradition, the Rural Aviation Improvement Act of 2009 will serve to improve the EAS program. The additional commitment of resources will augment the ability of the program to achieve its desired goals, reducing the impact on the Treasury while providing small communities with a greater degree of certainty when planning future improvements or bringing enhanced service to their airports. The bill also gives those same communities a greater role in retaining and determining the sort of air service which they receive, and assists in making that service sustainable.
The EAS program has also been plagued with a decline in the number of airlines willing to provide this critical link to the national transportation network. Not only have we lost a rash of participants in the program due to wildly fluctuating fuel costs and the omnipresent economic downturn, but in addition, a few 'bad actors' have jeopardized commercial aviation for entire regions by submitting low-ball contracts to the Department of Transportation and then reneging on their commitment to the extent and quality of their service. Our bill will not only establish a system of minimum requirements for contracts to protect these small cities that rely on EAS, but it will also extend those contracts to four years from the current two. This gives a heightened degree of stability in terms of air service, rather than having communities negotiating new contracts or receiving service from entirely new carriers every 18 months. Actively encouraging communities to get involved in the process, and building relationships with the carriers who serve them, can only bolster the quality of the program.
The EAS program ensures that many of Maine's rural areas have access to dependable air service and my bill would help improve this critical program. We cannot afford to ignore rural America - which contains nearly a quarter of the population - as we move forward with aviation policy and the Next Generation air traffic system. Therefore, it is very much in our national interests to ensure that every region has reasonable, consistent access to commercial air service. And that's why I strongly believe the federal government has an obligation to fulfill the commitment it made to these communities when Congress deregulated the airlines in 1978; to safeguard their opportunity for continued commercial air service. We must do all we can to foster an environment in which aviation can be used as a primary tool of economic development. A healthy, flexible, and stable EAS program is a critical component of that environment.