The Trump Administration’s budget proposal to slash federal subsidies for small public airports is drawing concern from local elected officials since it could affect travelers who use the Imperial County Airport.
Imperial County Board of Supervisors Chairman Ray Castillo said he feels the funding reduction proposal is a bad idea.
“It might not seem like it to us who live here, but we are considered a small rural county outside the mainstream of the rest of the state of California,” Castillo said. “Mokulele (the airline servicing the local airport) could not afford to provide air transport services for residents of this county without some form of subsidy. The EAS (Essential Air Services) program subsidy is needed by the small airlines transporting residents to LAX (Los Angeles International) airport.”
Trump’s recently released budget proposes changes to the Essential Air Services program, a federal subsidy to airlines that service small airports, such as Imperial County. Its goal is helping maintain a minimal level of scheduled air service to these communities that otherwise would not be profitable.
The proposed budget states many EAS flights are not full and have high per- passenger subsidy costs, and that many of the EAS-eligible communities are close to major airports. The budget includes a legislative reform proposal to modify the definition of essential air services to ensure that federal funds are targeted at the communities most in need.
“These reforms aim to reduce support for service that results in high per passenger subsidies and end subsidies to communities that are relatively close to other airports,” the budget document reads.
The county airport in Imperial is about 120 miles from San Diego International Airport, about 100 miles from Palm Springs International and about 60 miles from Yuma International.
Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budget that would take effect Oct. 1 would provide $233 million for the EAS program, $39 million less than fiscal 2017. Federal fiscal years run from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.
The cost of a flight to LAX is $59. Castillo said without EAS grant money the flight cost could reach $200.
Also raising concern was Rep. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego), whose House of Representatives district includes Imperial County. The measure would have a negative impact on the area’s economy, he stated.
“I strongly oppose President Trump’s budget proposal, which slashes Essential Air Services program funding. The EAS program has been beneficial to Imperial County and has provided support for the region’s economic goals. The proposed cuts to this program by the Trump Administration could have adverse effects on the community,” Vargas stated.
Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation chose Mokulele Airlines to provide air service in Imperial County for the two-year term from May 1, 2016, through April 30, 2018. At a recent meeting, the Imperial County board once again recommended Mokulele to continue as the airline operator for another two years. DOT has yet to reach a final decision.
Mokulele provides twenty-four nonstop round trips per week from Imperial to LAX using a nine-seat Cessna Grand Caravan 208-B or 208-EX aircraft, at an annual subsidy rate of $2,440,634.
Airline officials did not immediately reply to a request for comment.