Fight against user fees heats up

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Even though the members of Congress have been in their summer recess, this has not been a quiet period for the people here representing general aviation. They have been busy, and signs indicate they will be even busier.

Despite long protestations that user fees were out of the question for GA, the FAA now is hinting they might be needed to make up a “”shortfall”” in funding. Also, the administration continues its leanings toward privatization of the air traffic control system. Both of these ideas have been debunked, and both are being opposed by GA associations.

In its Flight Plan for 2006-2010, the FAA mentions general aviation only in reference to improving safety, but declares additional funding will be needed to meet what FAA says will be added costs to modernize the system.

The alleged funding shortage comes from policy changes rather than from lost revenue. When the Aviation Trust Fund and its associated special taxes were enacted in 1970, it was sold on the basis of providing a fund to develop an airports and airways system and to invest in air traffic control facilities. Created solely to finance the aviation infrastructure, it contained a definite recognition that air transportation is in the public interest and funding for FAA should come from general revenues.

Over the years there have been debates whether the trust fund should pay for any portion of FAA operations. Those debates have now evolved into how much of FAA operation costs should be from general funds. The President’s budget for FY 2006 lists that figure at only 13% of operations, the lowest figure yet. Military activity is figured in as a national interest.

There have been some declines in tax money going into the fund but, according to most outside government, not enough to cause the fund to be broke. In 1981-82, the act lapsed and so did authority to transfer revenues to the trust fund. Several other factors, including the decline in flying after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and expenditures for security measures in 2001 and 2002 until they were transferred out of FAA, put a drain on the trust fund surplus.

A report issued by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) shows trust fund revenues increasing. It concludes that the portion of the FAA’s operations that is paid from the general treasury will determine the stability of the trust fund.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) took out early against some of the material in FAA’s Flight Plan. Phil Boyer, AOPA president, said the association “”does not agree with the contention that the system is ‘broken.'”” He added that it is imperative that the FAA look for ways to reduce funding needed for essential services.

On another front, the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and National Air Transportation Association (NATA) are wrestling with the tax on aviation jet fuel being tossed into the Highway Bill. This would tax aviation fuel at the same rate as trucks, ($0.244 per gallon) instead of the current $0.219, and put the revenue into the highway trust fund. Meanwhile, the airlines pay $0.043 cents tax per gallon of jet fuel and receive a fee for collecting the passenger and cargo taxes that they may retain for up to three months.

While all this was going on, the General Accountability Office (GAO) released its study on commercialization of the air traffic control systems. As of March this year, 38 nations have privatized their ATCs. GAO studied five of these operations and found safety had not been compromised and that costs had been reduced either by greater efficiency or investments in new technologies. Also, all five had raised fees on general aviation.

While these skirmishes are going on over FAA’s financial condition, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) issued its report on pork barrel items in appropriations for the FY 2005. Pork is defined as an item requested by only one member of Congress, not specifically authorized, not competitively awarded, on which no hearings were held, and serves only a local or special interest. CAGW says there were 31% more pork items in 2005 than in 2004. This amounted to 13,997 items in 13 appropriations bills. Total pork: $27.3 billion, about twice FAA’s total budget.

Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.

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