U.S. House bill would exempt Hawaii, Alaska from cost-sharing requirement

Recent federal changes block rural communities from air travel subsidies

Lawmakers are trying to get rural Hawaii and Alaska airports exempt from a cost-sharing requirement that they say will burden small airports under the federal Essential Air Service program.

The program subsidizes airlines in order to service hard-to-reach communities, and has generally exempted Hawaii and Alaska from eligibility requirements. However, recent changes at the federal level now prevent Essential Air Service communities “located within 40 miles from the nearest small-hub airport” from getting funding until they’ve worked out a cost-share agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“Unlike the Mainland, Hawaii residents depend on air travel to get to work, run a business, access health care, go to school, visit family and friends and so much more,” said U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who represents the district that includes rural Oahu and the Neighbor Islands. “Imposing a cost-sharing requirement on Hawaii’s small hub airports and the rural communities they serve without recognizing the unique needs of our residents ultimately shifts a disproportionate cost burden to Hawaii residents compared to residents in other states.”

On Feb. 1, Gabbard, Hawaii U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young introduced House Bill 4836, which would exempt Hawaii and Alaska from the cost-sharing requirement.

Under the Essential Air Service program, Makani Kai Air offers flights to Kalaupapa Airport, and Mokulele Airlines flies to Hana. Neither Kalaupapa nor Hana fall within 40 miles of a small-hub airport. The Hoolehua Airport is considered a nonhub and the Kahului Airport is considered a medium hub, based on the amount of passengers. However, exempting Hawaii from any cost-sharing requirements could prevent Maui County from facing the problem in the future.

The law doesn’t say how much communities would pay, but Hawaii County has already provided an example of how a cost-share agreement might play out. Last month, Mokulele’s contract to service the Waimea-Kohala Airport expired. State and county lawmakers scrambled to work out an agreement; they settled on the federal government paying 95 percent of the $397,000 subsidy, which meant the county had to chip in 5 percent, or $20,000.

Gabbard said that “Congress has long recognized Hawaii’s unique reliance on air travel” and exempted the state from a number of fees. For example, the air transportation tax on domestic flights departing from Hawaii is half the tax imposed on flights in the contiguous 48 states.

“Changing this norm sets a dangerous precedent that could be used to unravel these long-held exemptions and ultimately increase costs for Hawaii residents in the future,” Gabbard said.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.