Last minute maneuers: User fees, VLJs and more on Congress’s agenda before its latest recess

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Before taking a recess to campaign for reelection, Congress took time to move on several issues important to general aviation.

The Senate confirmed Mary Peters as Secretary of Transportation. In past transportation positions she has declared a need for new financing methods, i.e., user fees. Peters replaces the well-respected Norman Mineta, who unexpectedly resigned in July. There has been some speculation by observers that Mineta’s sudden resignation was prompted by his opposition to user fees for personal and pleasure flights.

The House Aviation Subcommittee closed out its schedule with a hearing into possible funding routes for the next generation air traffic system — NGATS — or as the FAA calls it, “”Nextgen.”” Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) opened the hearing by stating that the FAA had asked for a dialogue on alternative ways to finance NGATS. The FAA doesn’t yet know how much the system will cost. Asking for financing before knowing how much will be needed is “”putting the cart before the horse,”” commented Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo).

Some testimony brought out strong points against the need to move away from the Trust Fund concept. Officials from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) told the subcommittee that the aviation trust fund is expected to continue increasing at a pace that would finance the modernization. CBO’s Dr. Gerald Dillingham told the subcommittee that because of the public interest in the system, the general fund should make a contribution.

Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, declared he had no objections to looking at all types of revenue but, in light of the CBO’s forecast, saw no reason for moving away from the present funding system. Information from the CBO, Costello said, “”raises questions about the administration’s claim that there is a revenue crisis at the FAA.””

Another strong member of the subcommittee, Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-Mich.) commented that user fees are cumbersome and get expensive. In his normal calm and quiet manner he said, “”we don’t charge user fees for everyone going through an intersection with a traffic signal.””

A second panel of witnesses discussed various alternative funding methods, including one suggestion that public bonds be sold and then redeemed through fees.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, the Senate subcommittee on aviation looked into the claimed position that very light jets (VLJ) would cause delays and other problems in the air traffic system. Here, the opposition to VLJs by the airline industry, which claims the VLJs will bring gridlock in the sky, sustained setbacks.

Two FAA officials said the agency is continuing to work on ways to accommodate increasing numbers of jets and unmanned aircraft. Nicholas Sabatini, associate administrator for aviation safety, and Michael Cirillo, VP systems operation, Air Traffic Organization, said in a joint statement that planning for new things is not unusual for the FAA. “”It is our day-to-day business,”” they said.

Performance characteristics of the VLJs are similar to other business-class aircraft that have been operating for years, they added.

Vern Raburn, president and CEO of Eclipse Aviation, reminded the senators that last year the FAA doubled the airspace available to aircraft at altitudes between 29,000 feet and 41,000 feet by reducing vertical separation distances. He said the airline hub and spoke system is reaching capacity, regardless of whether VLJs get into the field, and this is what drives costs.

Raburn bluntly pointed out that the airlines are propagating a series of myths. “”It would be irresponsible to not point out the elephant in the room,”” he said. “”The airlines see air transportation as a zero sum game and are acting to limit air transportation capacity vs. expand it.””

He charged that the airlines are not interested in retrofitting their fleets with modern technologies available in today’s VLJs, such as ADS-B, WAAS, and lateral position with vertical guidance (LPV).

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

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