Morgantown airport at center of FAA funding debate

Morgantown airport at center of FAA funding debate

Morgantown Municipal airport
The Morgantown Municipal Airport

By Patrick Terpstra, Capitol News Connection

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August 9, 2011 ·

The Morgantown airport has become a high-profile target in the ongoing attempts of Congress to fund the Federal Aviation Administration.
Subsidies for rural airports led to an impasse between Republicans and Democrats that partially shut-down the F.A.A. until a short-term deal allowed it to re-open. From Washington, Patrick Terpstra has a look at what’s on the line for Morgantown’s airport in the months ahead.

Flight announcement: AMBI Ladies and gentlemen, we are number one for departure, (inaudible) please be seated.

A United Express flight rolls down the runway at Morgantown Municipal Airport.

Colgan Airlines runs about three United Express flights out of Morgantown and brings four plane loads of people into the airport on the average weekday.

MOORE: The trend is, people are flying into Morgantown, people are flying into and out of Morgantown.

City Manager Terrence Moore says although the airport is the fastest growing in the state, it still must rely on more than a million dollars in federal aid each year from the Essential Air Service Program.

MOORE: At some point I’d like to think the city of Morgantown and Morgantown Municipal Airport will be at a place where it could function on an independent basis and not have to depend on Essential Air Service, however the timing is not yet in position to do so.

With the goal of budget cutting, the Republican-led House voted to wipe out subsidies for Morgantown and 12 other rural airports in the nation.

United Express receives about 200-dollars per passenger to fly into Morgantown.

The airport should lose its subsidy, explained Ohio Republican Steven LaTourette, because it is fewer than 90 miles from Pittsburgh’s airport.

LATOURETTE: Rather than the American taxpayer subsidizing the cost of the ticket, and paying the airline to transport those people, we’re going to ask those folks to get in their car and drive the less than 90 miles to a hub airport.

Senator Jay Rockefeller refused to go along with the cuts, accusing Republicans of taking aim at his state’s airport as a negotiating tactic.

ROCKEFELLER: It has nothing to do with Morgantown.

Rockefeller says Morgantown has become a political pawn.

The West Virginia Democrat is chairman of the Senate committee that oversees transportation. He says Republicans are trying to force him to go along with a bill that would rollback union rights granted by the National Mediation Board.

ROCKEFELLER: It isn’t about Essential Air Service, because if I agreed to that, then they would say well we got that one, and then they would come back and refuse to have an extension until you do the National Mediation Board.

The partisan dispute led to a two-week-long stalemate, forcing the F-A-A to furlough 74 thousand employees and halt airport construction projects across the country.

Under a deal struck Friday the Senate agreed to pass the House bill that eliminates subsidies for Morgantown and the other rural airports, but with a fail-safe. Cities, citing hardships, can petition the Department of Transportation to keep their airport subsidies.

In a statement, Rockefeller said he “received assurance” from D.O.T. that federal funding for the Morgantown airport would be maintained at least until mid-September.

Then, Congress returns from summer break to again debate whether to remove the subsidies.

Without the money, Morgantown’s city manager says airport operations would immediately eliminate 30 jobs. That, he says, would be the first domino to fall.

MOORE: There’s a direct relationship relative to the necessity for commercial air service and the viability of economic activity and development in Morgantown. So, continuation of this program does remain essential.

Airports in Beckley, Greenbrier, Clarksburg and Parkersburg also receive federal subsidies. Rockefeller says he is confident at the end of this funding battle, money for all the airports in West Virginia will be maintained for years.

House Republicans are just as determined to reform the subsidy program in the next round of negotiations.

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