JOHNSTOWN, PA — Aviophobia is the clinical definition for the fear of flying. And as the ground rushes up to meet the little Cessna that's carried me out of Dulles International and over the Allegheny Mountains, I'm exhibiting all the symptoms.
The end will come, I'm convinced, in this tiny 9-seat turbo-prop. What's worse, I'll be all alone when it happens. I am the only passenger on this federally subsidized flight.
Fortunately, I hear the wheels squeal on the tarmac, and my fears have proven unfounded. After cruising at 8,000 feet, at an average speed of 200 miles-per-hour, and at considerable cost to the taxpayer, I've arrived without incident at John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport.
The airstrip is in middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania. Like 174 other rural airfields around the country, it subsists almost entirely on funds from the federal Essential Air Services program (EAS). And last week, EAS landed on the kill list in President Trump's budget proposal, meaning John Murtha Airport may not be long for this world.
Ticket prices help explain the controversy. The Washington Examiner booked a roundtrip ticket for me, paying $147. But according to the Department of Transportation, that's not even close to the full cost. Thanks to EAS, the taxpayer pays an average subsidy of $266 for each flight into or out of Murtha. Considering that I was the only passenger on the flight, my own subsidy was probably larger. So, thanks.
That's part of the reason the White House wants to defund the $175-million-dollar program.
The Trump administration argues that EAS flies in the face of fiscal responsibility and basic market forces. The lady manning the ticket counter here sort of agrees. "There's just this one here," said Sharon Richardson, referring to the airport's single commercial service, Southern Airways. "It's just not possible for two carriers. It'd be impossible for them to compete."
Sharon Richardson would know. An employee at the airport for more than half her life, she's done it all. She handled baggage, de-iced planes, and even patted down passengers before TSA took over that responsibility. After 25 years of running day-to-day operations, Richardson is confident every airline would fly over the airport without the subsidy. That's why she said the airport tries to make itself "essential in other ways."
Currently, there are two non-stop flights with service to Pittsburgh and Dulles. Tickets start at just $29 dollars. Parking is free. And there's never a line to get through security. "Hey whatever it takes, right? That's how I think about it," she explains with a friendly laugh. Then she disappears. And I am, once again alone. For the better part of six hours, I'm am the only human being enjoying this particular fruit of the American taxpayer's largesse.
A bit bigger than a bus station, the place seems like it was built at miniature scale. There's a small rental car booth, two cramped waiting areas and an itty-bitty baggage carousel. While passengers on layover can surf the web with Wi-Fi, they can't enjoy a drink. There's no bar (a cruel discovery, considering both my fear of flying and that my editor sent me here on St. Patrick's Day), just a few vending machines. Not that there's anyone there to complain to about the relative lack of amenities.
The pint-sized airport is just eerily barren. And according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, that's normal. Last year a total of 4,070 passengers — no more than a dozen a day — started their journey at this little Appalachian O'Hare.
Those numbers suggest that time would have certainly forgotten the little aerodrome. But Rep. John Murtha's pork barrel spending kept his hometown airport alive. From his framed post on the wall, a portrait of the late Democratic congressman stares down passengers as they breeze through security. If they pause, they can read the accompanying plaque enumerating his exploits. Altogether, the airport serves as a sort of a fitting shrine to the late politician.
While the terminal is relatively modest, Murtha made sure the airfield is world class. In addition to the EAS subsidies, he poured millions into the facility through federal Airport Improvement Grants. Every year, this little airport, which serves a dozen people a day from a very small area, gets hundreds of thousands of federal dollars through the AIP program. New signs, taxiway lighting, and snow-removal equipment were all paid for by taxpayers from Sacramento to Tallahassee to Manchester — none of whom, in all likelihood, will ever get to make a pilgrimage to this shrine to Murtha. Federal taxpayers in 2007 even paid half a million dollars for the airport to expand by buying up more land. In 2015, Washington shelled out six figures to update the airport's "Master Plan Study," according to FAA data. Just last year, as a paltry 4,070 passengers used the airport, Murtha's taxiways received $1.55 million in federally funded upgrades.
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It's almost opulent. "They could land big C17s or 747s here," explained Corbin Nulton, the 26-year-old CEO of Nulton Aviation, a flight school across the street from the terminal. "The runway's been built to a very high specification," he says leaning back in his chair with considerable pride. Air Force One could use the airport, he adds, "if they felt so inclined."
But jumbo jets, it turns out, are not inclined to visit Cambria County.
The only ones taking advantage of the taxpayers' largesse are few Cessnas and a couple of private jets. Even the Air National Guard next door doesn't make the most of the facilities. "They fly helicopters. They don't do airplanes," Nulton said. "Mostly Apaches and Blackhawks; you know, vertical takeoffs, instead of needing the runway." It's that lackluster flight log that's made Murtha airfield the focal point in the dogfight over Essential Air Services.
When the Trump administration took aim at the EAS program, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., scrambled to its defense, tweeting out that killing EAS could shutter this airport. "There's this elite view by some in Washington," the Pennsylvania Democrat told the Washington Examiner, "who think the people of Johnstown shouldn't have access to modern transportation." Though Casey usually drives back and forth from D.C., the senator plans on dive-bombing Trump's budget to keep the airport open.
But the rural poor aren't booking family vacations thanks to the Essential Air Service. "Instead it's really a subsidy used entirely by the well-off," argues Eli Lehrer, president of the conservative R Street Institute. "The main advantage is letting some people skip the drive [between Cambria County and Pittsburgh] and avoid long security lines."
Michelle Kaltenbaugh, a 51-year-old elementary teacher, could've flown through Pittsburgh International. It's two hours away and would've cost her half a tank of gas. "But this is really easy," she said. "They've got free parking here and it's just so much closer." And that's the selling point.
Just like the savvy traveler keeps an eye on the weather, Kaltenbaugh pays close attention to the political forecast. She's wondering about the airport going under, having to make a longer drive, and yes, losing that free parking. "We're a bit worried about these rural hubs," she said. Johnstown isn't one of a kind, you see. Altoona has an EAS-subsidized airport only an hour away. "They're such a service to rural communities. Trump's cuts could really hurt a small area like this." Ultimately, that fear is unfounded.
Ending a handout for airfare should be easy. But Essential Air Services disperses ticket costs among many taxpayers in order to deliver concentrated benefits to a relative handful of travelers. In practice, that makes it almost impossible to shoot down. Lehrer begrudgingly puts the political problem in perspective. "Conservatives aren't quick to do away with it," he said, "because the areas that benefit tend to vote Republican."
So I called Rep. Keith Rothfus, a Tea Party-endorsed, self-described "fiscal conservative" who succeeded Murtha in the House, and whose district includes the airport. Rothfus rarely makes use of the airport, but the Keystone conservative has already hinted that he's ready to send up flak if the president tries cutting the program that keeps it alive. A fight over the issue could send the Trump agenda into a further tailspin.
For now, frequent flyers who live near a rural EAS airport can enjoy the comfort of private travel at public expense. Passengers can enjoy priority seating (or even get a whole plane to themselves), an easy boarding process, and a personal touch from the flight crew. For those unafraid of small planes, it's the closest thing to a chartered jet.
Philip Wegmann is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.