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Public Statements

FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

BREAK IN TRANSCRIPT

Ms. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, I wish to acknowledge the chairman and the ranking member on the Commerce Committee. I know they have been working diligently throughout this process not only with this particular reauthorization, but they have been great leaders on this issue over the years, and I appreciate that. We are working on some difficult issues, some contentious issues, including the issue of the slots which the chairman just discussed. It is one that is critically important to a person such as myself who represents the farthest of the West, along with Hawaii, so we look at how we are able to gain access through our airways and to travel. So the issues in front of us are incredibly important, but I don't want to speak to the issue of the perimeter slots today.

I wish to address an amendment that was raised exactly a week ago by my colleague from Arizona, and this is regarding the importance of the Essential Air Service to my State of Alaska. I think the Members of this body have heard very often not only from myself but from Senator Begich and, prior to the two of us, the Alaskan Senators who for years stood on this floor and said: Alaska is different.

When we are talking about the Essential Air Service and what it allows and what it provides, I repeat, Alaska is different. It is unique from anywhere in the lower 48, and the necessity to maintain the Essential Air Service is yet one more example.

It was last week that the Senator from Arizona referred to a figure from the FAA that stated ``99.95 percent of all Americans live within 120 miles of a public airport that has more than 10,000 takeoffs and landings annually.'' That statement clearly does not refer to Alaska.

When the Essential Air Service was created in 1978, after the airline industry was deregulated, Congress correctly determined that air carriers that supported our rural locations would need a financial subsidy to ensure their passengers could receive not only a price but quantity of flights and quality of service that was necessary to provide for effective transportation and movement of goods.

At the creation of the EAS Program, nearly every community in the State of Alaska was affected by the deregulation of the airlines industry. There were about 130 communities that were put on that list in 1978. Today we have 44 communities in Alaska that are receiving EAS.

Let me tell you some things about Alaska that do make it unique, and when we refer to Essential Air Service one can see that title is actually a very apt description of what is provided in my State.

I have a map of the State of Alaska. The red lines that look like little arteries represent our road system. We have just short of 11,000 miles of a road system in the State of Alaska. I said that seems like a lot of roads. To put it in context, California has 2.3 million miles of roads.

Our road system is one--if you look at it--that is up and down. We do not have much in southeastern Alaska. We do not have a thing along the Aleutian chain. We do not have anything in the southwestern and northern part of Alaska. We have just a few roads around the Seward Peninsula. Eighty percent of communities in the State of Alaska are not connected by a road. How do you get there? If you happen to be in the southeast, you get there by boat.

The bottom line is we fly. This is not a luxury; this is a necessity. We have to fly. We are the most flown State in the country. About 80 percent of our communities are nonaccessible by road while in the rest of the country, if you want to get in your car, if you have an emergency, you need to get to the hospital, you hop in and drive. If you want to go for a spring break, you get in your car and drive 4 or 5 hours and you are at the beach. If you want to get somewhere--anywhere--you pretty much have an opportunity to do so.

We do not have that opportunity in Alaska. Given what we face with a limited road system--the weather and terrain issues--we in the State of Alaska treat airplanes or helicopters like most Americans would treat their minivan. Aircraft in Alaska are not just a nice thing to have. They are a lifeline for survival, for subsistence, for travel, for recreation. They are truly an essential part of our everyday lives.

The city administrator of Atka--Atka is all the way at the end of the Aleutian Islands--the city administrator of Atka, Julie Dirks, sent a letter to the Alaska delegation explaining how the loss of EAS subsidies would negatively impact the city of Atka and other rural communities in the State. In the letter, she writes:

Loss of this program would be devastating to remote rural communities such as Atka and others in our region. Atka is not on a road system connecting the communities to other places nor is there any type of marine ferry service connecting Atka to other islands or mainland Alaska.

Even though there is a lot of water out there, you cannot get there by boat.

Air transportation presently is the only method available providing access in and out of Atka. Costs of service are already high even with the subsidy. Without the subsidy service would be too expensive or even non-existent.

I ask unanimous consent to have printed the letter from the city administrator of Atka.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows:

February 7, 2011.
Re Essential Air Service Program.

Alaska Delegation,
Senator Mark Begich,
Senator Lisa Murkowski,
Congressman Don Young,
Washington, DC.

It is my understanding Senator John McCain has introduced legislation to the FAA Reauthorization Bill that, if passed, would repeal the Essential Air Services Program. I am writing on behalf of the remote Aleutian community of Atka, Alaska to protest the elimination of the program.

Without the federal government subsidy provided by the Essential Air Service program remote communities in Alaska like Atka are unlikely to have any air service at all and could cease to exist. Regular scheduled transportation service is important to the sustainability of the community and to support economic activity of the local seafood processing plant owned jointly by local residents and the regional CDQ organization.

Loss of this program would be devastating to remote rural communities such as Atka and others in our region. Atka is not on a road system connecting the communities to other places nor is there any type of marine ferry service connecting Atka to other islands or mainland Alaska. Air transportation presently is the only method available providing access in and out of Atka. Costs of service are already high even with the subsidy. Without the subsidy service would be too expensive or even non-existent.

Your efforts to keep this important program funded will be appreciated by Atka residents.

Sincerely,

Julie Dirks,
City Administrator.

Ms. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, we have 44 communities in the State of Alaska that receive an EAS subsidy. Thirty eight of those communities are not connected in any way to this road system so they are forced to use air travel as their primary means of travel. Then one has to say: OK, that means you have six that are on a road. Why can't they use the road? Why do we have to provide EAS for these six communities?

Let's look at some of these communities. McCarthy does not have any road maintenance during the winter months. Pretty much between October and April we are looking at a situation where this community is shut off. That means no mail. That means no emergency services. That means no ability to get food supplies. They basically have to wait it out until the road thaws in the spring. If we do not have air service in a community such as McCarthy, even though there is technically a road, for about 7 months they are without.

Another of the communities, Gulkana, is on a two-lane paved road, but it is over 210 miles to the nearest medium-hub airport. The other four communities, which are Circle, Central, Minto, and Manley Hot Springs, are all located on two-lane gravel roads. They require driving distances of at least 125 miles to the nearest hub airport.

Again, we need to remember what kind of roads they are driving on. This is not like jumping on to I-95 or I-10. These are, for the most part, single-lane roads during most of the year. They are snow covered, with limited visibility. They have tough temperatures they are dealing with in the interior. It is pretty dark during this time of year. It is not a road about which one says: Let's drive to town.

It has been noted by some of the opponents of the Essential Air Service Program that the spending in Alaska is just out of whack, that it is too much. Let's look at the facts as they relate to Alaska.

There are currently 153 communities that are receiving subsidies, according to the USDOT. The Department of Transportation says there are 44 communities in Alaska and 109 communities combined for the lower 48, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. Critics say it looks as if Alaska has almost half as many EAS communities as the rest of the United States.

OK, that may be true. We will grant that. But what they ignore, what they forget is how we compare in Alaska in conjunction with the rest of the country. I know people get tired of looking at these maps about how big we are. The fact is, we do not make this up. We do not just superimpose Alaska on a map of the country and say: Isn't this a nice shape? We put it on the map of the lower 48 States to show the size. We are not that little State that is down in the water next to Hawaii or off California, despite some of the maps that are still out there on people's walls. We are this big.

We have over 47,000 miles of shoreline, going all the way out to the Aleutians and coming all the way up--47,000 miles, more than all of the other 49 States combined. We cover an area of over 586,000 miles. We go from California to Florida, beyond the Great Lakes and into Canada.

The comment was made that if I want to go from Adak, which is one of the EAS communities, to Anchorage, which is the largest city in our State, it is a $1,400 round-trip airfare--with EAS subsidies, I might add. But it is almost 1,200 miles. That just gets you from Adak into Anchorage. It does not get you down to the rest of the lower 48.

Put that in context and that is like going from Kansas City to Boston where, I might add, their round-trip airfare is $571. It helps to put things in context when people are saying that Alaska is getting too much of a share of this program. Monetarily, Alaska gets about $12.6 million in EAS subsidies. The rest of the Nation gets over $163 million in EAS subsidies. In Alaska, we have over 700 registered airports, 1,200 airstrips, and over 10,000 registered aircraft.

When we look at how our 44 communities that receive the subsidies receive less than 10 percent of the subsidies of the lower 48, to suggest somehow they are getting something that is not equitable, again, is important to put into context. There are no roads to most of these communities.

It was commented by my colleague from Arizona that there was a 2009 GAO report on the Essential Air Service Program. It was indicated that the GAO thought the Essential Air Service Program might have outlived its usefulness. But there is a section of that report that was left out. I think it is important to note that the writers of that report stated:

[The] review focuses on communities within the continental United States that have received EAS subsidized service. We focused our review on these communities because the requirements for communities in Alaska are different than for communities in other States, and airports outside the contiguous States are not representative of the program in the rest of the country.

It is critically important that we look to what that full GAO report said and how it recognized that the circumstances in Alaska are entirely different and are not representative of what we see in the lower 48.

When we look to that GAO report, we need to put that into context again. Another thing that must be kept in mind when we are talking about Essential Air Service is that--what we are all talking about on the Senate floor--is jobs, what is going on with jobs. The number of jobs that would be lost, the economic impact that would result from the repeal of this program in Alaska would be consequential.

Aviation in our State provides $3.5 billion to the economy. It represents 8 percent of the gross State product. It is the fifth largest employer in the State, employing about 10 percent of our total workforce. And it is not just the jobs that would be lost, these folks who handle and sort the mail, load the packages into the aircraft would likely lose their jobs. The commercial fishermen, the workers at the fish processing plants would be impacted. Emergency medical professionals, the tourist industry, recreational professionals--they would all feel the negative impact of the repeal of EAS in Alaska. All of these vital industries and services are connected to the everyday Alaskan by one common thread, and that is aviation.

Many of us look forward to the wild fresh salmon that comes out of the Copper River in May. That comes from a community in Prince William Sound, Cordova. Mr. President, 2,200 people live there. They receive Essential Air Service. The fact that they are able to fly into this community that does not have access to a road allows those fishermen to receive a price for their product that maintains and sustains them. The repeal of EAS means hundreds of my constituents would be forced to purchase expensive airline tickets just so they would have access to the most basic and yet very essential things.

Kodiak Island is the recipient of a lot of our EAS communities. Island Air is an airline that services these 12 communities.

Eleven of these communities are served by float planes because there is no runway. So we don't even have the basic runway. You are flying in on a seaplane. Two of the communities Island Air supports are Karluk and Alitak. Round-trip airfare from Karluk to Kodiak, which is sitting right in here, is $254 a person, to Alitak it is $346 a person. Flights to these locations occur only three times a week. So if you are going to fly into Kodiak, you have to assume you are going to have a couple nights of hotel costs--lodging expenses--so this brings the price of your trip to about over $500. But if the EAS Program is repealed, the cost per person to get to these locations jumps to over $1,800, and that is just to get from the little village to Kodiak. This is not getting you to Anchorage, where you can get medical services. It is not getting you to where you can get to the shopping you and your family might need. These expenses are also just for the airfare and not for the lodging. It doesn't allow for the purchase of supplies, mail, tourism or any of the other activities that members and visitors to these communities might engage in. So I think it is fair to say if we repeal EAS, Island Air will no longer be able to serve these communities. They would be forced to lay off their employees. But you don't have service to these areas.

I can't speak for every location in the United States that receives funding from EAS and tell you how each would be impacted by the McCain amendment, but I can say, without any reservation, that this amendment would create an economic and a transportation disaster for Alaska, including the loss of jobs, livelihoods, and would potentially impact health and medical situations. The complete elimination of the EAS Program could destabilize many of our rural communities, could negatively impact the integrity of Alaska's interconnected aviation system, and severely reduce air services to essential parts of the State. EAS has been and will continue to be a critical and instrumental component of Alaska's aviation transportation system network, while providing important jobs and allowing necessary and critical access to rural and isolated communities within our State and across the Nation.

I have consumed the time I was allotted this morning, but I cannot repeat enough, I cannot reiterate enough the importance of a program such as Essential Air Service to a remote and rural State such as Alaska. It truly is essential. When this amendment comes before the body, I would urge defeat of the McCain amendment.

With that, I yield the floor.

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