User fees: it’s time to get into this fight

If you don’t think user fees are the most serious among current threats to general aviation, listen to Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo).

His wry comment was that the plan would give us the “safer skies” the airlines keep talking about, but only “because it would rid the skies of general aviation aircraft.”

I agree.

Graves stated at a Congressional hearing that user fees actually would decrease safety, as they’d discourage general aviation pilots from using air traffic control and weather briefing services.

Conversely, he said, all aircraft today pay into the Aviation Trust Fund through excise taxes on aviation fuel. From that standpoint, the current revenue collection system is the most equitable because all aircraft pay as they go, not just those who use FAA services.

Graves also questioned the need for proposed hikes in the fuel tax, from 19 or 21 cents per gallon (depending on who’s paying it) to 70 cents, and called that idea “terribly disturbing.”

Graves, a pilot and aircraft owner, is not a lone voice for GA in Congress, for which we can be thankful. A number of others support his position that the Aviation Trust Fund should, in fact, revert to what it was intended to pay for in the first place: Capital improvements and infrastructure, not FAA operations. Whether there are enough of them to turn back the user fee proposal remains questionable, however.

Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), another pilot and aircraft owner, says that user fees are “inappropriate” both for the airlines and for GA, and that GA “pays its fair share now through fuel taxes.”

That position also received strong support from Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), who opened his remarks at a recent hearing by stating that he is “not open to user fees.” Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) warned, “Don’t get carried away with user fees,” insisting that the existing fuel tax is “the way to go.”

GA’s long-time friend James Oberstar (D-Minn.), now the ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said that he has never liked user fees. He made the excellent, but little-noticed, suggestion that the general fund or TSA should reimburse the trust fund for the more than $1.3 billion taken from it after Sept. 11, for security expenses, before any other funding is considered.

User fees, for which the airlines are lobbying heavily, should be of great concern to all of us in general aviation, from individual Sport Pilots to major corporate flight departments and all of us in between. The proposed fees threaten every segment of GA in a very serious way.

I’m far from alone in this perception.

Since the administration’s FAA Reauthorization proposal was unveiled in February, a deluge of criticism has rained down from every imaginable GA alphabet group and many members of Congress, countered by smug proclamations of victory from airline officers and their organizations. They see the FAA as their ally, which appears to be true.

On the other side, Phil Boyer at AOPA says that “our future is hostage to the FAA funding decision” and I don’t think that’s the slightest exaggeration. The proposed user fees and much higher fuel taxes hold the potential, quite literally, to kill general aviation, just as Congressman Graves commented.

Pete Bunce, General Aviation Manufacturers Association president and CEO, points out that the current FAA funding mechanism is, in fact, stable and predictable, despite the administration’s insistence that it is not. “Over the past 10 years, the U.S. Congress has routinely given the Federal Aviation Administration more than the President asked for in the budget. You cannot get much more stable than that,” he said. “Trust fund revenues, which help fund the FAA, are at record levels and projected to continue to grow through 2012.” The administration insists that a new funding mechanism must be created to pay for upgrading the air traffic control system. However, according to the President’s own budget, the user fee scheme would generate roughly $1 billion less than the current mechanism. That fact did not escape Bunce. “The administration’s proposed funding scheme is not about modernization,” he said. “It is shifting costs from the airlines onto general aviation.”

Perhaps as much a threat to GA as user fees, the airlines not only would shed some costs but they would gain nearly-complete control of the entire air transportation system under the administration’s proposal, which would create an Air Transportation System Advisory Board dominated by the airlines and without a single representative from GA. The FAA proposes to include at least three airline operatives on the ATSA Board but totally ignores general aviation.

One wonders why the FAA places such confidence in airline managers.

Since the airlines were deregulated in 1978, nearly 100 of them have come – and gone – in the United States. Every major survivor has been dragged into bankruptcy court by the incompetents running them, even the best of whom couldn’t cope with a snowstorm in February. Airline managers have indulged in ruinous competition, repeatedly setting prices too low for any to make money, leading investor Warren Buffett to quip that capitalism would have been better served if someone had shot down the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk.

Having got themselves into a fine mess, will we now allow airline managers to drag the rest of aviation down with them?

I certainly hope not.

The United States remains the only major developed country without a user fees-based funding mechanism for aviation. That’s often used as an excuse for imposing user fees here.

My argument is that America’s freedom from user fees is exactly why we have the most robust aviation industry and infrastructure in the world. One need fly no farther than Canada to discover the accuracy of that view, let alone Europe, where GA is almost nonexistent by comparison with the United States.

It’s time to write letters to our Senators and Representatives. Please get into this fight and stay the course. The alternative, as Congressman Graves sardonically put it, is to “rid the skies of general aviation aircraft.”

Thomas F. Norton is GAN’s Senior Editor.

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