The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted 34-25, mostly along party lines, for a Republican-authored bill that establishes and renews Federal Aviation Administration programs through Sept. 30, 2014.
The bill would eliminate most of the $200 million essential air service program, which pays airlines to provide scheduled service to 155 communities. The bill would phase out the program in the lower 48 states by 2013. After that, only subsidies for service to airports in Alaska would be continued.
In the Senate, Arizona Republican John McCain has proposed eliminating the program, calling it a test of lawmakers' commitment to cut government spending.
The program was created to ensure that less-profitable routes to small airports wouldn't be eliminated when airline service was deregulated in 1978. But critics say the airports often serve too few people to merit the subsidies.
Subsidies per airline passenger range as high as $5,223 in Ely, Nev., to as low as $9.21 in Thief River Falls, Minn., according to Transportation Department data for the lower 48 states as of June.
A 2009 Government Accountability report said demographic shifts were also decreasing the population of some communities served by the program. The report said that on average just over a third of the seats were filled on subsidized flights. For commercial flights nationwide, the average was about 80 percent.
Lawmakers from rural districts say scheduled airline service is critical to the ability of rural communities to attract and retain businesses that generate jobs.
The subsidy program "is a vital lifeline between rural communities and the global network of commerce," Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the committee's top Democrat, said in a statement.
"Small and rural communities have grown up around (the program), which directly supports local jobs," Rahall said.
The bill would also roll back annual FAA spending to $14.7 billion for each of the next three years - the same level as 2008 - in keeping with GOP promises to shrink government. But the FAA budget had been expected to grow substantially since the agency is in the midst of a major effort to modernize the nation's air traffic control system, moving from World War II-era technology to a satellite-based system.
The new GPS system is needed so that planes can fly more precise routes, saving time and fuel and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, aviation officials have said. It is also necessary to help accommodate anticipated growth in air travel, they said. FAA's latest air travel forecast, released this week, predicts air travel will increase from about 700 million passenger trips a year now to over 1 billion trips by 2021.
Democrats predicted the spending decreases will lead to cutbacks and cancellations in the air traffic modernization program. FAA has estimated the program will cost the government as much as $22 billion through 2025. Airlines would have to spend as much as $20 billion more to install equipment in their planes.