Senate authorizes funding for FAA air carrier services to Diomede

For decades, Diomede has scrambled to fund reliable air carrier service. On Tuesday, the small island community got one step closer to a long-term solution for passenger travel and mail delivery. The US Senate voted to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration with a new amendment that would guarantee federal funding for the island of Diomede.

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The native village of Little Diomede sits on the border of Russia and the United States. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer Richard Brahm)
The native village of Little Diomede sits on the border of Russia and the United States. (U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer Richard Brahm)

Diomede is smack dab in the middle of the Bering Strait, closer to Russia than it is to the continental US. The remote community relies on air carrier services for everything from milk to medication. That’s why an amendment to include Diomede in the FAA’s Reauthorization Bill is a big boost for the community.

“This is a huge, fundamentally important life, health and safety issue for them,” explained John Bioff. Bioff is an attorney for Kawerak, the Native non-profit corporation for the Bering Strait Region.

Up until now, Bioff said he’s struggled to secure steady funding for air carrier services to the island.

“To have to go back to the state every year, not knowing whether or not this year we’re going to be able to keep the Diomede funding in the state budget, is horrible,” Bioff said.

In 1978 the FAA established the Essential Air Service, or EAS, program. It subsidizes air carrier service to small communities throughout the country, including sixty in Alaska. Diomede isn’t one of them. It’s had to rely on a mix of state and federal funding, which Kawerak reapplies for each year.

In 2015, Diomede received about $190,000 in federal funding and relied on state grants to double that.

Senator Dan Sullivan learned about Diomede’s dire situation a few months back. He’s on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

“I recognize how difficult any kind of economic issues are without essential air service, particularly in some of most remote locations, so we got to work,” said Sullivan.

The FAA Reauthorization Bill sailed through the U.S. Senate 95-3. The House is working on its own FAA bill, which does not include a special provision for Diomede, is bogged down over a controversial section that would privatize air traffic control.

Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer.

Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF.

Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about.

Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.

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