Will user fees be the issue that unites general aviation?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — After years of assurances from several FAA administrators that user fees were not an issue, the FAA recently informed the aviation community that the sky is falling with the aviation trust fund and new sources of revenue are needed when authority for collecting fuel taxes expires two years from now. Once again the idea of user fees is being cultivated, fertilized by plenty of deposits from scheduled carriers.

Here’s what a few general aviation interests think about user fees:

“”A system funded entirely by direct users will be undercapitalized and under utilized, according to most economists,”” say officials with the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA). “”It seems unwise to give the agency responsible for regulating the aviation community responsibility for imposing fees on that community. The user fee system would reduce, if not eliminate, the incentive for the FAA to operate more efficiently. After all, what incentive is there to change an operation that produces revenue even if a better system exists?””

Officials from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) suggest user fees would diminish the participation of Congress in aviation safety and capacity matters. “”The excise taxes that airline passengers and pilots pay are, in the broad sense of the word, a user fee. If Congress eventually concludes a new funding mechanism is necessary, alternatives exist beyond the administration’s simplistic user fee proposal — alternatives that, unlike user fees, would not diminish the participation of Congress in aviation safety and capacity matters.””

“”The current fuel tax is a practical and commonsense weight and distance formula that provides an easy means of collection,”” declared James Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association (NATA). Coyne also blasted the scheduled airlines, saying ‘the “”crisis”” airlines are pushing is a scheme to take advantage of the excise tax debacle in order to manipulate Congress into redistributing the cost burden of the FAA onto their low-cost competitors and general aviation.””

The General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) pointed out that general aviation has declined in every country where user fees have been established and that a fee program would be regressive, paperwork intensive and detrimental to business aviation.

By the way: These are quotes from testimony given to a Congressional subcommittee Feb. 5, 1997.

Nothing changes except the cast of characters. In 1970, when the taxes were set to form the aviation trust fund, the purpose supposedly was to establish a fund to advance the system and build and improve airports. Now it is being used to fund all except a little more than what someone in government believes is the military’s use of the system.

The present system will be in place until September 2007 so Washington groups aren’t openly in a dog fight to keep user charges away. Now the groups are trying to scout out their territories. It is too early to determine whether there will be a concerted, unified effort with all the associations singing from the same hymn book.

A new Congress will take up the issue after next year’s election. There will be a few new faces, but generally the present members will be on hand.

General aviation interests are still trying to get lawmakers to understand that there is something in the sky besides airliners and birds. But so it is the world over. The Flight Safety Foundation recently quoted a United Kingdom Civil Aviation Authority executive who stated a truism that general aviation faces the world over: “”General aviation,”” he said, “”is probably far less understood by policy-makers than commercial aviation.””

To quote another saying: “”If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.””

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

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