Are we preaching to the choir? Some say general public needs to be included in debate about user fees

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The current differences over user fees and air traffic control modernization is not an aviation issue, but an air commerce matter, a former FAA administrator declared at a forum sponsored here by the United States Chamber of Commerce.

Alan McArtor, who was administrator from 1987 to 1989, said there is a need to broaden the debate and get the general public involved. “”We are not getting the word out to the people who will be impacted,”” he told the audience.

To demonstrate his point, McArtor asked everyone in the room who was involved in aviation to raise their hands. Almost everyone in the room raised a hand. “”This issue will not be solved by the aviation industry,”” he said, adding that if the people who rely on air transportation for commerce knew what was going on, they all would be involved in getting it settled.

Now chairman of Airbus-North America, McArtor said he does not believe every blip on a radar screen is the same. He also questioned whether the next generation air traffic control system, dubbed NextGen by the FAA, will solve security problems. If the system lets each airplane know its specific position to alert other pilots, the same information can be secured by terrorists wanting to shoot them down with GPS-guided rockets, he said.

Others on the panel also questioned whether the FAA has planned NextGen thoroughly enough. Steven Taylor, representing FedEx, said there should be “”more focus on what we are going to get for our money.”” He and others commented that there should be much more specific information about the system before discussing financing.

Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and general aviation’s representative on the panel, declared that modernization of the aviation system is a national priority, but is separate from the funding issue. He and others pointed out how FAA projects in the past have taken longer and cost much more than had been planned. The FAA’s current proposal calls for massive expenditures by users of the system to equip their aircraft for the satellite-based system and “”must be right before money is spent,”” panelists said. Bolen noted modernization is already underway and that general aviation is supporting it, but added “”a new funding structure, like the one proposed in the big airlines’ FAA bill, is not necessary for modernization.””

The head of government affairs for American Airlines disagreed. William Ris said the airlines are paying too much and believes there should be more direct discussion. “”Talking over each other’s heads can produce political gridlock,”” he said.

Current FAA Administrator Marion Blakey also spoke at the meeting, reciting the same rhetoric that has been the standard since announcing the administration’s position on reauthorization. She cited the need for modernization to relieve congestion as air travel continues to increase. She complained that under the current system the airlines are paying too much and general aviation not enough. She also declared that money coming in from passengers — which airlines claim as their share — and the general aviation fuel tax “”can always be held to offset the federal deficit.””

The airport representative on the panel echoed the need to get the general public more involved. Gregory Principato, president of Airports Council International-North America, said passenger facility charges need to be increased and that there should be help for all airports from the largest used by airlines to the smallest used by general aviation. At present, he said, airports are investing about $17.5 billion a year in airport improvements.

Summing up the discussion, moderator Leo Schefer of the Washington Airports Task Force said the amount of money being talked about “”is peanuts. It would pay for only a few miles of superhighway and a few exits.”” The consensus of the panel, he added, is that aviation notables are talking to the choir and “”we must get the choir talking to the congregation.””

This is being done some now, a Chamber spokeswoman said. The Chamber of Commerce is trying to get more information to the public, she said, pointing out the most recent was a session held in Southern California where Phil Boyer, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), was a featured speaker. That gathering of business executives and local and regional chamber officials was initiated by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. The U.S. Chamber is encouraging other local groups to sponsor similar sessions.

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

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