Congress should cut mini-airport subsidies

A bill to extend program authorization and funding for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) passed the House earlier this week and is now headed to the Senate, where it is expected to run into a serious obstacle because of an obscure provision concerning a little airport in Nevada. The Ely Airport is in the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. It’s likely nobody other than those directly involved in this issue would give it much thought, but for the fact the national air traffic control system’s daily operations could be threatened.

The Ely issue centers on the fact that federal law currently allows the government to pay up to $3,720 for every passenger ticket used at the facility. There are two other similarly tiny airports — Alamogordo/Hollman Air Force Base in New Mexico ($1,563) and Glendive, Mont. ($1,358) — that receive federal subsidies for every ticket. The subsidies are intended to ensure air service is available on sparsely traveled routes the commercial airlines don’t want to service for fear of not making a profit.

The House wants to cap such subsidies at $1,000 per ticket. Rep. John Mica, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, observes that “it is now up to the Senate to pass this bill and not shut down FAA programs over a little provision that eliminates huge government subsidies to just three small airports.”

Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., who chairs a House Aviation subcommittee, adds, “if we can’t put an end to these extravagant subsidies, then we will never be able to rein in spending where really hard decisions are necessary.”

Mica and Petri are right and the Senate ought to heed their suggestions. But while we’re on the issue of the FAA, here’s another issue that ought to get at least as much attention from Mica, Petri, Reid and every other member of Congress who cares about commercial aviation safety.

For years, the FAA bureaucracy has thumbed its nose at the National Transportation Safety Board’s repeated recommendation that gliders be required to carry electronic identification equipment that alerts pilots of other aircraft in the immediate vicinity to their presence. If this is not done, according to active and retired commercial pilots, sooner or later an airliner carrying hundreds of people is going to be brought down in a collision with a glider.

This problem is particularly acute, according to pilots, in areas such as Denver where atmospheric conditions are quite favorable for gliders, which rely on wind currents instead of engines to remain in flight. The airspace west of Denver can literally be saturated with commercial airliners, high-performance military jets and privately owned,
propeller-driven aircraft.

There is no FAA requirement that gliders carry electronic identification equipment to alert pilots in the airspace and air traffic controllers.

Nine deaths have resulted from collisions involving gliders and commercial aircraft, which prompted the NTSB recommendations that FAA has ignored for two decades.

If the FAA bureaucrats won’t listen to the NTSB’s safety experts, maybe they will listen to Mica, Petri and Reid.

editorialsHarry ReidNevadaOpinion

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