Merkley, Wyden, Walden Introduce Bill to Support Rural Air Service, Armed Forces

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden have introduced the Defending Essential Flights and Ensuring National Security Efforts (DEFENSE) Act, which would allow rural commercial airports that are also heavily utilized by the military to access critical federal support to help maintain air service. Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR 2) is introducing a companion bill in the House of Representatives.

“The Crater Lake-Klamath Regional Airport is a critical transportation link for the region, but has faced challenges with carriers willing to serve a smaller market,” Merkley said. “Regular air service allows remote communities to increase economic opportunity and attract visitors and new businesses. In the case of Klamath Falls and similar airports across the country, these airports are also used extensively by the U.S Armed Forces and National Guard for training, exercises, and operations. This important bill supports both rural economies and national security, and I will work with my Oregon colleagues to push it through.”

“Klamath Falls area residents and businesses deserve a full-court press from their elected officials to restore commercial air service that’s so essential to their quality of life and local jobs,” Wyden said. “This legislation takes a huge step toward bringing back this key transportation link both for rural Oregonians and travelers wanting to visit Crater Lake and all that southern Oregon has to offer.”

“Air service at Crater Lake-Klamath Regional Airport is a crucial asset to the local economy in Klamath Falls, as well as the Air National Guard operating out of Kingsley Field,” Walden said. “This bill will ensure the airport has needed resources to continue serving the Klamath Falls community and supports our nation’s defensive priorities as well. Air service provides diverse transportation, economic, and national security benefits to rural communities in Oregon and throughout the country, and this plan will help address the challenges smaller regional airports like Crater Lake-Klamath face providing commercial service to the region. I look forward to working alongside my colleagues to move this bill across the finish line and bring air service back to Klamath Falls.”

Congress established the Essential Air Service (EAS) program in order to ensure that small communities that were served by certificated air carriers prior to the Airline Deregulation Act would continue to receive passenger service, with subsidies helping to retain airlines if necessary. Currently the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport in Pendleton is Oregon’s only EAS airport.

Across rural Oregon and America, there is high demand from local businesses for commercial air service to provide a necessary link to the nation’s economy, and to increase the community’s economy by adding jobs and bringing in visitors. Some rural airports, like the Crater Lake-Klamath Regional Airport in Klamath Falls, meet many of the criteria for the EAS program, but are denied eligibility simply because they were not receiving subsidies in 2011.

The DEFENSE Act provides an exemption from that provision for airports at which military operations make up more than 10 percent of total airport operations in 2017; Klamath, for instance, shares its runway with a U.S. Air National Guard base. The exemption allows these rural airports to apply for the program.

“All of us who are long-time supporters of air service at Crater Lake-Klamath Regional Airport are grateful for Sen. Merkley’s hard work on this bill,” said Sky Lakes Medical Center CEO Paul Stewart. “Its passage would greatly enhance our ability to recruit physicians  to the region that suffers from too few medical providers.  A mountain range separates Klamath Falls from  the nearest air service, making us geographically isolated. Considering the myriad hazards of mountain driving in winter weather, travel to and from the area is difficult to the extent potential providers often refuse to even try.  Inadequate access to providers presents a clear and significant hardship to the people in the communities Sky Lakes Medical Center serves.  Improved access that would result from convenient air service also would enhance Klamath County’s economic development efforts, adding critical energy to help revitalize Oregon’s rural economy.”

“Reliable air service is critical to Klamath’s regional economy,” said Klamath Falls Mayor Carol Westfall. “Sen. Merkley has been fighting to preserve air service here every step of the way, and we are grateful to his innovative, long-term solution to bringing air service back to Klamath Falls.”

“I want to thank Senator Merkley for his incredible work on this legislation,” said Klamath County Board of Commissioners Chair Derrick DeGroot. “The passage of this bill would reaffirm the Country’s commitment to the incredible men and women of the National Guard and United States Air Force that serve on critical facilities such as Kingsley Air Field and others like it across the nation. Providing safe and reliable commercial air service for our airmen and the communities that embrace and support them is critical to our Nation’s security.”

“The Crater Lake-Klamath Regional Airport is appreciative of the efforts of Senator Merkley to amend the Essential Air Service (EAS) Program so that Klamath Falls can regain its eligibility. Becoming eligible again under the EAS Program would greatly enhance our ability to attract air service to our community again,” said Airport Director John Barsalou. “While air service is beneficial for the community as a whole, it is of specific importance to the mission of the 173rd Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard based in Klamath Falls.”

Find the full text of the bill here.