WASHINGTON — The lone commercial airline serving Republican Rep. Hal Rogers' hometown of Somerset offers discounted fares starting at $39 on half-empty nine-seat planes thanks to a $1 million taxpayer-subsidized grant.
Customers zip through security at Lake Cumberland Regional Airport's $3 million, federally funded commercial terminal, which sat virtually empty for three years as local officials struggled to get a carrier to provide service to the rural town of about 12,000 that sits 77 miles south of Lexington's Blue Grass Airport.
Next month, that long-awaited carrier, Locair, which currently offers four 45-minute round-trip flights to Nashville each week, will add service from Somerset to Washington Dulles International Airport on Monday mornings and Friday evenings — the same days and times government officials and companies with government contracts tend to travel back and forth between Washington and their hometowns.
Passengers will initially pay less than $200 per ticket. Taxpayers could pay upward of $2,000 per flight.
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Rogers considers the air service part of an important drive to spur development and grow tourism in southern and eastern Kentucky.
"It should come as no surprise to anyone that I support initiatives throughout the region that will encourage economic development, improve our environment, increase public safety, and grow tourism," said Rogers, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for allocating funds for the Department of Transportation grant program Somerset is using to subsidize the flights.
"The carrier has to make good business decisions, and routing is an integral component of that," said Rogers. "Any misplaced assertions that I somehow secured the grant, selected the carrier and determined the routes are simply not true."
Critics consider the air service to the rural area "a good concept with disastrous execution."
"It would make more sense to rent a car when you get to Louisville and drive," said aviation consultant Michael Boyd. "They're running a 19-seat airplane with nine seats on it. North of them they have Louisville with a lot of service, and south of them they have Nashville with a lot of service. A lot of these ideas are nutty fruitcake and just don't work."
Since 2002, under the direction of Congress, the Department of Transportation has pumped $110 million into the Small Community Air Service Development Program, a pilot program that some small cities like Somerset, which have problems luring consistent air carrier service or are forced to pay high air fares, are using to heavily subsidize air service.
Over the past decade, Congress has also channeled more than $1 billion into the Essential Air Service program, a highly criticized program with a similar purpose of subsidizing flights to rural communities. Somerset does not participate in the Essential Air Service program.
In some cases, cities that participate in the programs are within easy driving distance of larger airports.
Somerset, for example, is a 90-minute drive south of Lexington, two and a half hours south of Louisville and roughly three hours north of Nashville.
A 2007 Department of Transportation Office of the Inspector General review showed communities that netted Small Community Air Service Development Program grants have a 30 percent success rate in sustaining air service in the year after those grants expire.
Somerset was awarded a grant in 2005 and has scrambled every year since to secure several extensions as air carriers backed out on contracts, ran afoul of Federal Aviation Administration regulations or folded altogether. It now has roughly a year to make the air service a success.
"A lot of times these cities think, 'If we don't have this, we won't get economic development,'" Boyd said. "That presupposes that those are places people want to fly to, and it also presupposes it's airplanes people will get on."
One of 37 cities
For nearly two decades, Somerset officials have pinned their hopes on the idea that air service would bolster the area's economic development efforts.
In 2004, the city received a $3 million FAA airport improvement grant to construct a new terminal. However, several regional carriers refused to consider Somerset because, at the time, the airport didn't have an instant landing system, a navigational system that uses crosshairs to help bring planes down safely even if visibility is limited, said Ron Swartz, manager of the Lake Cumberland Regional Airport.
Airport officials worked to get the navigational system in place, and in 2005 Rogers wrote Norm Mineta, then the transportation secretary, in support of Somerset's grant application for money to help secure air service.
"As you evaluate applications for the Small Community Air Service Development Program, I am confident that with an initial federal investment — short-term air service funds coupled with an aggressive marketing campaign — this proposal will be successful," Rogers wrote.
Somerset was one of 37 cities to win a grant that year.
Last year, local officials were able to woo Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Locair to the area by highlighting the possibility of capitalizing on the burgeoning crop of small defense-related businesses and tourism near Lake Cumberland, said Nate Vallier, Locair's general manager.
"When we told the congressman's office, they were thrilled. They never, ever imagined they would see a flight," Vallier said.
The relationship with Rogers' office is "leading us into other businesses," he said. "One company alone wants to buy four seats each way every week. That's half my seats right there."
In December, Rogers turned out for the early morning maiden voyage on "The City of Somerset," the plane that made the short trek to Nashville. According to local media, Rogers called the flight "one giant leap for Somerset."
Other members of Congress have come under fire for using their influence to renovate near-empty airports in rural sections of their district.
Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., who also sits on the powerful House Appropriations committee, has helped channel $150 million in federal funds to an airport in Johnstown that locals have dubbed "Fort Murtha." Murtha views the airport as critical to plans to transform the area into a military nerve center.
Like the planned commercial flights from Somerset to Washington, the Johnstown airport is largely used by small commuter craft that trek back and forth to Dulles.
The air service industry has given Rogers' campaign efforts a lift over the years and is second only to the mining industry in contributions to the lawmaker.
The air service industry contributed $228,775 over the course of his career, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit organization that tracks the impact of money in politics and public policy. During the 2007-08 cycle, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association contributed $20,000 to Rogers' campaign.
Meanwhile, Somerset pays $10,000 a month to cover the airport's operational costs — non-reimbursable expenses that forced the city to increase its transportation budget from $40,000 to $250,000, said Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler.
"We've received no assurance after the grant expires that there'll be additional money" to subsidize flights, Girdler said. "It will take two to three years to establish the market. We're still concerned that without additional networking where the cost is shared by other cities we would be in the same predicament as major airlines."
Worse, he said, without subsidized air service, the brand new, glass-front air terminal could once again go dark.