Congressman Gregorio Sablan has submitted written testimony to the US House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, asking for his district, the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), to become eligible to participate in the US Department of Transportation's Essential Air Service (EAS) program, while also requesting that the islands be exempt from some standard EAS requirements.

Sablan's testimony to the committee on April 18 comes after Marianas Southern Airways (Saipan) exited the islands in late March, just seven months after launching. That followed the freshly elected CNMI Governor, Arnold Palacios, tearing up a USD8 million sole-source contract that the airline had secured from his predecessor.

"Air service is vital and the only practical means of transportation between the islands of the Marianas. Commuter air service can, however, be unreliable, and fare prices have increased significantly in recent years," Sablan's testimony reads. "One carrier (Star Marianas Air (S2, Tinian)) has been providing air service between the three Marianas islands – Tinian, Rota International, and Saipan – and to Guam International for over a decade. However, in December 2021, the carrier abruptly suspended all air service for over a week and did not resume scheduled service for three weeks due to disputes over fees with the local port authority."

Sablan says following that, the former CNMI governor utilised funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to establish a second carrier, Marianas Southern Airways, to operate a partially subsidised service between the islands. "When the new administration took office in January, the use of Rescue Act funds was questioned and subsequently halted, causing the second carrier to shut down operations and close business. These events caused a rapid increase in inter-island airfare rates that have remained historically high."

Previously, the CNMI was eligible to participate in the EAS program, but the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (Public Law No: 112-95) changed that. Amendments to that Act around the definition of "eligible place" meant the CMNI was excluded from accessing the program. However, special provisions were made for Hawaii and Alaska, and Sablan wants those provisions extended to the CNMI.

"To ensure that communities in the Marianas will always have at least a minimal level of scheduled air service, EAS eligibility must be amended. This change will not automatically place Marianas' airports in the program, but it will ensure that EAS assistance is available if ever needed," the Congressman wrote.