The outcome of a partisan battle in Congress over federal aviation funding could determine whether commercial flights continue to fly in and out of Athens.
A Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill the U.S. House of Representatives passed July 15 would eliminate $12.5 million in Essential Air Service grants for 10 rural airports -- including Athens-Ben Epps -- that are within 90 miles of a major airport.
It would also cut grants for three other communities where EAS subsidies are more than $1,000 per passenger.
"The Essential Air Service provisions included in the extension are limited reforms that target the most indefensible of the subsidies," House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Tom Petri, R-Wis., said in a news release. "We in Congress are trying to find a way forward on addressing our deficit and long-term debt issues, but if we can't put an end to these extravagant subsidies, then we will never be able to rein in spending where really hard decisions are necessary."
The Senate approved a similar bill in February, but now Democrats are vowing not to pass the House version, meaning the FAA was headed for a partial shutdown Friday, when its current authorization expired at midnight. Without reauthorization, the agency will be forced to furlough 4,000 of its 47,000 workers and delay $2.5 billion in airport construction projects, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said.
The FAA has been operating on a series of 20 short-term extensions since 2007.
LaHood and Democrats in the Senate say they want a "clean" vote on reauthorization without the EAS cuts or other changes, which should be dealt with separately.
Negotiations are ongoing, said Lauren Culbertson, a spokeswoman for Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., but she was not sure when an agreement might be reached.
The EAS program, created during airline deregulation in the 1970s, subsidizes commercial air service in small markets where it would not otherwise be profitable. If House Republicans win out, commercial airlines might refuse to serve communities that lose the subsidy.
Airport Manager Tim Beggerly said he is not sure whether commercial flights would continue at Athens-Ben Epps without EAS, but he does not think the program will be eliminated entirely.
"I expect that they're going to revise the program," Beggerly said. "I don't expect it to go away like the House proposed in this FAA reauthorization bill. That's kind of harsh."
Georgia Skies receives $1.1 million per year from the U.S. Department of Transportation to subsidize 12 flights per week between Athens-Ben Epps and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The airline carried 271 passengers in August, the last month when Georgia Skies reported enplanements, Beggerly said.
Greg Kahlstorf, CEO of Georgia Skies' parent company, Pacific Wings, would not say whether he would pull out of Athens if he lost his EAS grant.
If Georgia Skies left, Athens-Clarke officials would try to recruit another carrier that is willing to operate without a subsidy, Beggerly said.