Tea party lawmakers from rural areas were among those fighting the hardest to preserve taxpayer subsidies for airline flights to and from small towns last year after senior Republicans tried to eliminate the oft-criticized program.
But now, the House Appropriations Committee is awarding the program an 11 percent budget increase.
Next year, the subsidies would reach a record $214 million under a bill the GOP-run committee approved Tuesday.
The subsidies can reach hundreds of dollars per ticket — and can exceed $1,000 on a few routes. A recent change to the program will soon take care of such $1,000-plus cases, but critics of the program say more still needs to be done to shelter taxpayers from runaway costs.
Last year, the House voted to eliminate the program in the lower 48 states by 2013. But rural tea party lawmakers including Reps. Rick Berg, North Dakota Republican, and Kristi L. Noem, South Dakota Republican, were among those who fought to save it.
Instead of killing the air subsidies, Congress in February approved a watered-down set of changes when passing a measure renewing federal aviation programs.
The subsidy increase approved Tuesday came as the panel also moved to cut food aid to poor nations overseas and funding for implementing new Wall Street regulations.
The Essential Air Service program is a product of deregulating the airlines during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. It was established to guarantee that small communities would continue to get commercial air services even though the routes were no longer profitable.
The program awards contracts, usually worth between $1 million and $2 million a year, to subsidize airlines that serve airports such as Escanaba, Mich., Pueblo, Colo., and Scottsbluff, Neb.
Such subsidies work out to as little as $6 per passenger for airports like Cody, Wyo., and Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. But subsidies can often reach hundreds of dollars each way on a round trip flight to and from isolated places like Kalaupapa on the Hawaiian island of Molokai or Great Bend, Kan., whose three or so passengers a day benefited from a subsidy exceeding $600 in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available.
The program’s budget has quadrupled since the 2001 budget year, when it was just $50 million. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, however, airlines pulled out of smaller unsubsidized markets, leading more cities to require taxpayer subsidies to keep their flights.
In 2009, the subsidies cost $136 million but jumped to $175 million in 2010 and to $193 million for the ongoing budget year.
That kind of spiral has earned the program many detractors among government watchdog groups and anti-waste conservatives. So when House Republicans last year took up legislation renewing federal aviation programs it contained a provision to eliminate the program by 2013.
That got the attention of newly elected tea party freshmen, many of whom reclaimed for the GOP rural districts occupied by “Blue Dog” Democrats. Just as they support much-maligned farm subsidies, rural conservatives such as Mr. Berg dropped the anti-government rhetoric when a program is popular back home.
“Rural regions rely on [the Essential Air Service subsidies] for vital air transportation,” Mr. Berg said on the House floor in February. “In North Dakota, airports like Jamestown and Devil’s Lake would not be able to provide critical air service without this support.”
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