Guess who else is against user fees?

Most GA pilots are against them, as well as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the Experimental Aircraft Association and a host of other alphabet groups. But did you know that air traffic controllers also are against user fees?

The controllers’ union, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), even went so far as to commission a report by industry analyst Darryl Jenkins on user fees. Its title, “Turbulence Ahead: How user fees could ground the FAA,” says it all.

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?

It was in April 2005 when FAA Administrator Marion Blakey first floated the idea of user fees. Since then every public appearance, it seems, is focused on this message: The FAA’s main source of funding, the Aviation Trust Fund, is nearly broke. The only way to fix it, federal officials say, is user fees. Backing this argument up are the airlines, who claim it’s time for GA to pay its fair share.

A majority of the money going towards the Aviation Trust Fund is from a 7.5% passenger ticket tax. Other sources include a passenger flight segment fee, international arrival and departure taxes, a cargo/mail tax and taxes on fuel for both commercial and GA operators.

It’s the FAA’s position that passenger taxes are going down as ticket prices have dropped, meaning the Aviation Trust Fund isn’t getting the revenue it needs to keep the FAA afloat.

But Jenkins’ report notes that the FAA’s data is wrong. Ticket prices are going up. “During the last 12 calendar months, there were more than 30 attempts by airlines to raise fares and at least 17 were successful,” he writes.

And while the airlines are lobbying hard for user fees, Jenkins predicts that user fees could be a financial disaster for the airlines. “When revenue from user fees decreases for any reason (typically, a soft economy), airlines will have to make up the shortfall,” he reports. “The result will be an increase in operating expenses when airlines are least able to afford it.”

Another caveat in Jenkins’ report that the feds should investigate further: Airlines could declare bankruptcy to avoid paying user fees. He notes that as more than half of the major U.S. airlines are currently operating under bankruptcy protection, this is a “very important” consideration. Bankruptcy does not excuse the payment of excise taxes, he explains.

And just how would these user fees be collected? The collection system now is virtually automatic, with the passenger and fuel taxes sent directly to the Treasury. “In contrast, a user fee system would require the FAA to assess and collect fees from thousands of users and to track down deadbeats — tasks for which it has no qualifications or experience,” the report notes. “A new bureaucracy would be required to operate a fee system, incurring administrative costs that would consume a portion of any revenue increase.”

But perhaps the greatest threat is that instituting user fees opens a Pandora’s Box, Jenkins warns. “Once a precedent is established for user fees, it is much easier for Congress to impose many more,” he predicts. “Potential examples include congestion taxes for flights between busier airports; fees for health and safety inspections; surcharges for various categories of air traffic control; fees to help fund new equipment or training; fees for navigation systems or weather forecasting — the possibilities are endless.”

Another factor to consider once Pandora’s Box is opened: User fees are a step towards privatizing air traffic control, a move that NATCA does not want to see happen.

“We’ve paid attention to what has happened around the world,” says Ruth Marlin, NATCA’s executive vice president. “What we see, by and large, is a belief that people who pay the most have the most say. Priorities get shifted. If you start circumventing physics, that’s a big problem.”

She relates a story of one major airline that wanted to put an employee in the tower at Newark, whose job it would be to tell controllers which planes need to get into the airport first. “We don’t have enough slack in the system to play games,” Marlin says.

Another idea floated is “premium pricing,” where airlines can “buy a spot in the front of the line,” she says. “As a controller, I just can’t work that way. You can’t put airline efficiency ahead of safety.”

WOULD YOU PAY A USER FEE?

A lot of rhetoric from the GA community is that user fees will compromise safety because pilots won’t want to pay for services that were previously free. Does this worry air traffic controllers?

“I don’t think there should be an incentive to avoid safety,” Marlin says. “Imagine if your community said a police officer will only visit your home if you pay extra. Once you put in financial barriers, you introduce unnecessary risk.

“We are not an arm of the airlines — or GA,” she continues. “Our main concern is safety.”

That’s why NATCA commissioned the report. The organization wanted an independent assessment of the issue based on experience in the field and hard data. The report, as well as another one recently completed by Jenkins called “Pricing: An Examination of the U.S. Commercial Aviation Pricing Environment since Sept. 11,” is being used in NATCA’s lobbying efforts against user fees.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric about what user fees do or don’t do,” Marlin says. “In the absence of real information, people will believe anything.”

When you have the FAA administrator and airlines saying that user fees are fair, it’s important to get the other side out, she notes.

“We realized we had to get that information out to the public,” she says. “The most effective lobbying tool is education.”

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