As NCWV Airport looks for carrier, future of EAS program unclear

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HARRISON COUNTY, W.Va (WDTV) - Officials with the NCWV Airport hope to lock in a commercial airline as soon as this summer to replace its old carrier, Via Air, which received a termination letter from the airport last month.

This comes amid growing uncertainty over the Essential Air Service (EAS) program. President Donald Trump's budget proposal, released this month, would gut the program.

"There's always talk of cutting the Essential Air Service and it would be disastrous to West Virginia," Rick Rock, director of the airport, said.

The program provides federal dollars to subsidize flights at rural airports, an enticing proposition to any daily carrier.

"The airlines use it for part of their operation," Ron Watson, president of the Benedum Airport Authority, explained. "Not only do they have their maintenance upkeep, fuel of the equipment, but they also have employees."

Rock says the president's proposal to gut EAS hasn't affected negotiations with airlines, but Watson says that could change if the budget passes in this current form.

"The airlines need a guarantee of a certain amount of money in order to stay afloat," Watson said.

Via Air served as an Essential Air Service carrier for the airport, but airport officials cited reliability issues in their decision to end the relationship.

Watson says there are reasons to be optimistic, pointing to his conversations with representatives from the National Association of Counties.

"Our lobbyist in Washington tells us they feel very comfortable that [the program] will be included back in part of the budget," he said.

Last month, 5 News asked Congressman David McKinley about the president's budget blueprint, which called for the elimination of EAS. He told us that the president was "wrong."

He re-affirmed that commitment Tuesday, writing the following in an e-mail to 5 News:

"The Essential Air Service is a vital lifeline for small airports in rural areas, including the North Central West Virginia airport. I've consistently supported funding EAS and have voted against efforts to repeal or weaken the program in the past. Congress controls the power of the purse, and there is strong support in the House to maintain the important role EAS plays in communities across West Virginia and the entire United States."

As critical as the program is today, Rock says he would like to see the airport expand beyond EAS in the near future. That conversation is in the video above.