BLUEFIELD — The decline of the Mercer County Airport can be attributed to missed opportunities and a lack of federal funds, according to U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

Rockefeller, who met with members of the Daily Telegraph editorial board Monday, said inactivity at the local level, including a failure by the Mercer County Airport Authority to file for a Small Communities Air Service Program grant, could leave the facility grounded.

“The Small Community Air Service Program is a very substantial amount of money,” Rockefeller said. “It’s been around for some time, and Bluefield is the only airport across the state that never applied for a grant.”

Rockefeller said the restoration of an Essential Air Service subsidy supplied by the U.S. Department of Transportation isn’t likely to happen. Rockefeller said specific funds can’t be earmarked for Mercer County, and any increase in federal subsidy funds would have to be equally applied to airports across the nation.

“Your editorial says we have to restore the money,” Rockefeller said in response to a recent Daily Telegraph editorial. “That is based upon several assumptions. One, we can do it and, two, if we did do it the president would accept it. And, third, it would last.”

Rockefeller said the Bush administration is opposed to Essential Air Service funding.

“First of all, EAS is hated by the president and a lot of folks on the Appropriations Committee, which is Democratic,” Rockefeller said, adding that federal earmarks could no longer be applied to a specific community such as Bluefield.

Rockefeller said the airports in Bluefield and Beckley were informed during the spring of 2005 that they could no longer receive EAS funds because of their proximity to hub airports. While Beckley fought those determinations and won, Rockefeller said, records showed no correspondence from Bluefield.

“They did fight,” Rockefeller said of Beckley. “They fought back and won. I don’t know how they fought, but they succeeded. But you all didn’t.”

Rockefeller said opportunities were missed locally by the Mercer County Airport Authority, and other area officials.

“There are a number of things you have not done in your own interest when money has been available, and you have not applied for it,” Rockefeller said.

Rockefeller said the federal Essential Air Service subsidy was created to assist air carriers willing to serve rural areas such as Bluefield at a time when the airline industry was being deregulated by lawmakers.

“The Essential Air Service was done when they (lawmakers) deregulated the airlines,” Rockefeller said. “They are never going to reregulate. Washington is in a deregulation state. The political landscape is changing more in favor of the larger airports and less in favor of ours.”

With the restoration of the federal subsidy unlikely, Rockefeller said officials must work to market the airport locally for new opportunities.

“Charleston has air shows,” Rockefeller said. “I was at one just the other week where they had all of these guys who flew World War II planes. They are always marketing it. They have a strong board of directors. They have muscle people in the community who work on it.

“You can’t survive as a community if you don’t have that. I think the same can be said for Bluefield.”

Rockefeller said such a marketing plan could benefit the Mercer County Airport, adding that his office has a general aviation expert who is readily available to assist the Mercer County Airport Authority board and local officials.

– Contact Charles Owens at cowens@bdtonline.com