March 8, 2013

THE $85 BILLION in across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration have begun to affect places like Garden City, the Kansas county seat (pop. 26,880) whose airport will lose $318,756 in Federal Aviation Administration funds that pay for four air traffic controllers. As The Post’s Stephanie McCrummen reported, Garden City Regional Airport’s control tower is one of 238 affected by sequestration, which will reduce total FAA spending in fiscal 2013 from about $16.7 billion to $16.1 billion. Small towns are lamenting the potential impact on air safety and local economies.

Another case of sequestration madness? The increased safety risk is likely to be marginal at worst. At Garden City, only two commercial jets take off and land per day — connecting to and from Dallas — and one already does so when the tower is closed. As for local economies, the federal government already spends many billions of dollars in pursuit of prosperity for rural America. Though undoubtedly nice for the folks who benefit, one might well question the national interest in subsidizing a couple of flights a day between Garden City and Dallas.

Garden City’s predicament does illustrate the senselessness of sequestration in a different way. Its airport is one of 120 in 49 states (not including Alaska) that receive federal support under the Essential Air Service (EAS) program. Established in 1978 as a 10-year measure to help small towns adjust to airline deregulation, EAS has mushroomed into a seemingly permanent $200 million-a-year subsidy, fiercely defended by rural lawmakers from both parties. EAS pays airlines to provide scheduled flights to and from places with so few passengers that it wouldn’t make sense to operate there otherwise. That is to say, it subsidizes inessential air service.

Garden City has had twice-a-day jet service to Dallas since April because EAS gave American Eagle Airlines a two-year contract, at $2.9 million per year, to provide it, according to the Congressional Research Service. That works out to $107 in taxpayer aid for each of 18,000 passengers in 2012. Such subsidy rates are typical under the program. State and local governments also chip in to keep Garden City going. Airport officials note that their plan is to use federal subsidies to establish a large enough customer base so that the airline can eventually provide service without a subsidy. But given the program’s history as “temporary,” we’re skeptical.

The point is not to vilify Garden City or any other small town but to note that EAS itself has long since outlived its ostensible purpose and now serves only to illustrate the federal government’s utter inability to establish sensible priorities. If the relative handful of people who choose to live in rural communities want scheduled air service, they should draw on the resources of their own states, or of the private sector, to provide it — or do without and content themselves with the compensating virtues of small-town life.

Ideally, EAS would be zeroed out, and the $200 million we waste on it devoted to a truly national purpose: perhaps deficit reduction, military readiness or the social safety net. Alas, if Congress and the White House were capable of making such choices, we probably never would have had sequestration in the first place.