Use fees get cold shoulder from lawmakers: Speculation already exists that reauthorization bill won’t be ready by deadline

WASHINGTON, D.C. — “”My intention is to give it a decent burial.””

With those words, Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) closed his opening comments at a House Subcommittee hearing into reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Oberstar’s comment referred to the administration’s, FAA’s, and airline industry’s efforts to establish user fees for general aviation.

The House opened its study of the FAA’s plan with a two-day hearing held by the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation. Oberstar chairs the full committee.

Similar thoughts were expressed by Rep. Jerry F. Costello (D-Ill.), chair of the subcommittee, and other members who made opening statements.

Comments from the lawmakers included such statements as:

• “”I do not believe the FAA has made a compelling case.””

• “”FAA can never act like a business. It has no competition.””

• “”It is not in the public interest to let the FAA set its own fees.””

• “”Just 3% of the airports are causing all the congestion, but the FAA is focusing on the entire system.””

• “”The FAA hasn’t said how they will collect the money. It’s like setting up an IRS in the FAA.””

• “”I’m not going to put the fox in charge of the hen house.””

• “”The FAA faces challenges, but let’s not nickel and dime the industry to death.””

Two representatives who are not members of the committee appeared as witnesses. John Barrow (D-Ga.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) both blasted the FAA’s proposed funding plan. Barrow mentioned the importance of Gulfstream Industries in his state; Moran recounted the size and importance of general aviation, which is big in Kansas.

The sole witness for the government — Calvin Scovel III, Inspector General of the Department of Transportation — came under heavy fire but faithfully continued to stress the party line, saying the proposed change in funding was to make revenue collection fairer to all users. Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) commented that this is “”like saying to bicyclists that you’re not paying your fair share of the superhighways.””

In his remarks, Chairman Costello said the FAA had promised to send details of its plan to Congress last summer, but legislators didn’t receive them until mid-February, causing a time-crunch.

Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), told committee members there was no funding crisis at the FAA to justify requests for user fees. Two other witnesses on the same panel — Dr. Gerald Dillingham of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and DOT Inspector General Scovel — confirmed this, declaring the current funding system generates enough money to fund the FAA’s modernization plans.

Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), warned committee members that the FAA’s user fee proposal is an attempt to reduce Congressional authority. He also stated this reduction of authority could be a move to privatize the air traffic control system.

The helicopter industry added its voice to fee opposition through the testimony of Matthew Zuccaro, president of Helicopter Association International (HAI). He reminded the committee that the helicopter industry set up and manages its own air traffic control over the Gulf of Mexico. He also noted that user fees should not be confused with modernization.

James May, president of the Air Transport Association, continued to toe the airlines’ line that what the companies are looking for is a fair sharing of the costs, but his pleas seemed to fall mostly on deaf ears.

User fees are not taxes and therefore not subject to Congressional approval. What the Congress can do is set legislation prohibiting the FAA from setting up a user fee system. Unless prohibited by legislation, the FAA could set any number of fees and amounts it wishes and change them at will.

BEYOND USER FEES

User fees, however, are but one part of the reauthorization of the FAA. A second day of hearings before the subcommittee began by exploring areas of controller workload, airline pilot age limits, inspector and other agency work forces, and over-all operation of the FAA.

The agency and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) have been at loggerheads for months over staffing, work hours, and other job-related issues. More than 11,000 new controllers will be needed over the next 10 years, according to NATCA. Also, the agency is losing 12 or 13 inspectors a month. Finding and training competent persons to fill these positions are difficult tasks, union officials told the committee.

When the FAA was reauthorized four years ago, final legislation was not completed until after the previous reauthorization expired, causing the need for temporary extensions. There is speculation that a new bill will not be ready by the Sept. 30 expiration of the present authorization, again requiring temporary extensions

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

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