Southern Airways Express Airlines 2

A ground handler at Southern Airways Express gestures in front of an airplane on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016, at John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport.

Passenger air service at 173 small airports – including Johnstown, Altoona and DuBois – would be in jeopardy under a spending model included in discussions by President Donald Trump’s budget team.

Washington-based news magazine and website The Hill has reported the Trump team is relying on proposals included in “Blueprint for Balance: A Federal Budget for 2017,” developed a year ago by conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation.

The plan calls for elimination of most federal airport subsidies, including the Essential Air Service program that support passenger service at smaller airports.

Other recommendations would privatize public broadcasting, gut EPA funding and eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities.

While they agree that budget cuts are coming, the region’s two Republican congressmen say they aren’t ready to end support for the airports.

“Our small local airports play an important role in our local economy and give these communities better access to the global marketplace,” Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Sewickley, said in an email.

“The EAS plays a significant role in keeping these smaller airports afloat.

“I continue to support the EAS, but I also recognize that smaller airports need to seek ways to become more financially independent so that they can continue to serve their communities.”

Rothfus’ 12th district includes much of the Johnstown area, including John Murtha Johns-town-Cambria County Airport.

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Everett, continues to support the EAS program, his office says.

“We’re still in the first days of the new administration – the Senate just voted on a transportation secretary (Tuesday) so it is premature to speculate on issues like this,” spokesman Casey Contres said in an email Tuesday.

“Congressman Shuster’s support for the Essential Air Service program has been clear. And like he has in the past, he will continue to work to support and improve this program that small and rural communities like those in our region depend on.”

Shuster has proposed Federal Aviation Administration reform in the past and will reintroduce a proposal in the new congress, Contres said.

“In his capacity as chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Congressman Shuster will support keeping rural communities connected with reliable and affordable commercial air access,” Contres said.

Leaders at both the Johnstown airport and Altoona-Blair County Airport said passenger air service would not be possible, currently, without EAS funding. But both facilities are working toward being able to sustain a non-subsidized air service, the officials said.

Altoona airport manager Tracy Plessinger and Johnstown airport authority members James Loncella and David Kalina said they are optimistic that Southern Airways Express will rebuild ridership locally to support a sustainable air service for the region.

Southern took over Johnstown’s commuter service late last year, and has been operating out of Altoona since last March, when it bought Sun Air Express.

“They have been very active in outreach in the community,” Loncella said. “Our long-term goal is to do what we can to help them be successful to a point where an air service can operate here without the EAS subsidy.”

It may take a while to get to that point, Loncella said, pointing to loss of public confidence that grew during Silver Airways’ operation at both airports under previous EAS contracts.

“We feel we have an air carrier now that is looking to build an airline system throughout the Mid-Atlantic region,” Plessinger said.

Kalina said he thinks Southern has the air service “back on track.” He was not ready to predict how long it will take to wean the service from federal help, but stressed it will take a consistent daily passenger count.

“Then, and only then, can we set a longer-term goal,” he said.

This year, Southern will receive about $2.2 million to operate flights from Johns-town and Altoona airports.

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.