By Tim Leeds
An item in President Bush's budget proposal has caused concern about Big Sky Airline's service in Havre, but spokesmen for Montana's congressional delegation say the service will probably continue.
A limit on the amount of subsidy allowed per passenger under the Essential Air Service program would eliminate service to Havre, Glendive and Lewistown, along with five other towns outside of Montana.
A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said today he thinks the final budget will keep the funding high enough to continue service.
"Is there cause for concern?" J.P. Donovan said. "I would say no."
The budget submitted by Bush limits the per-passenger subsidy under EAS to $275 per passenger, except in Alaska.
EAS is a federal program that pays airlines to serve towns too small to serve profitably without the subsidy. Big Sky serves seven Montana towns under the subsidy. The other Montana towns Big Sky serves are Glasgow, Miles City, Sidney and Wolf Point.
Once a final budget comes out of both the House and Senate, Donovan said, he's sure the EAS funding will be high enough to continue service to Havre, Glendive and Lewistown.
"I don't see any reason to be concerned at this point," he said. "There's too much support in Congress and Senator Burns will fight for this one tooth and nail. EAS plays too important a role to shorten the distance in a state like Montana."
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said in a press release that he would also fight any cuts reducing Big Sky's service in Montana. The service is key to the long-term economy, jobs and transportation in rural Montana, he said.
Donovan said many past administrations have tried to reduce EAS funding, but Congress has not allowed it.
The House will write its own version of the budget, keeping Bush's recommendations in mind. Then the Senate will write its own version, keeping the recommendations of Bush and the House in mind. The final version will have to be agreeable to all three parties for final approval, Donovan said, but he thinks it will include enough funding for EAS.
The footnote limiting the per-passenger subsidy has been in budgets presented for the last four years, but has never been enforced. John Rabenberg, chairman of Montana's Essential Air Service Task Force said it hasn't even been noticed before.
"It caught everybody off guard, including the Department of Transportation," he said.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.