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January 04. 2013 12:26AM

Lebanon Airport subsidy slammed

Lebanon Airport's 10,000-passenger milestone and the extra $850,000 in Federal Aviation Administration funds it will bring aren't being celebrated by everyone.

The airline that pushed the passenger total to 10,120 for the year 2012 is the beneficiary of a federal subsidy program that U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte has opposed.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the EAS program subsidizes commuter airlines that serve about 163 rural communities that otherwise would not receive any scheduled air service.

"With over $16 trillion in debt, it blows my mind that Washington is spending hundreds of millions on a national program that subsidizes plane tickets for a handful of passengers traveling short distances," Ayotte said Thursday. "This is why we need to produce a budget for the country, so we can go through spending line by line and eliminate wasteful programs."

Cape Air is the only commercial airline serving Lebanon, providing daily flights to Boston and Westchester County, N.Y. Under Essential Air Service, Cape Air receives a federal subsidy rate of $2.35 million - up to $46,536 per week.

Rick Dyment, manager of the Lebanon Airport, said without the subsidy, airlines would not be able to serve places like Lebanon and survive financially. And without Cape Air, Dyment said the Lebanon airport would lose 60 percent of its revenue.

It would also mean local travelers would face driving to airports in Manchester (76 miles), Burlington, Vt. (93 miles) or Boston (125 miles). "Essential Air Service is a critical benefit in my mind to airports such as ours," Dyment said.

Ayotte, a member of the Senate Budget Committee, said now is not the time to fund such programs. She voted to eliminate the EAS program in February 2011.

"I certainly appreciate Lebanon Airport, but I think the problem is if every member of Congress goes there and views their only job to bring home the bacon to their state and doesn't think about the overall national debt, it is one of the primary reasons we are $16 trillion in debt," she said. "Of course I'm going to fight for things for New Hampshire, but I always have to think about the country. New Hampshire can't be strong if our country is not strong, and so I look at every program on its merits."

Dyment has feared for the EAS program, and was relieved to see it survive at least another year. "Without the subsidy, there would be no airline," he said. "There were talks early last year about the possibility of losing it. Anything could change."

The EAS subsidy goes to the airlines. But by reaching 10,000 passengers, Lebanon qualifies for a huge increase in funding from the FAA's Airport Improvement Fund. Lebanon would receive about $150,000 if it served fewer than 10,000, but at 10,000 - a goal the airport set for the year - Lebanon is considered a primary airport that qualifies for $1 million.

The airport has a long-term plan to expand its longest runway to 6,200 feet. Currently, the longest is 5,500 feet. There is a great deal of prep work and planning before construction can begin, which Dyment hopes happens within two to three years.

Cape Air flies directly to Boston's Logan Airport and serves New York City through the Westchester County airport, where passengers are taken by vehicle to midtown Manhattan.

The airline lost eight consecutive days of its service to New York because of Hurricane Sandy, but made a last-minute push to help Lebanon reach the 10,000-passenger mark by slashing fares to as low as $12 each way to Boston and New York from Dec. 26-31.

"It was a good week because people had some flexibility," Cape Air spokesman Trish Lorino said. "We put it together Christmas Eve. We got a great response in such a short turnaround time."

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Doug Alden may be reached at dalden@unionleader.com.