Will user fees ground GA? Pilot Town Hall meeting atSun ‘n Fun outlines threats

User fees and a proposed jump in fuel taxes are the biggest threats to GA today.

That’s the message AOPA President Phil Boyer brought to Sun ‘n Fun in a Pilot Town Hall Meeting. Talking to a packed crowd at the Florida Air Museum Pavilion, Boyer urged pilots to sign one of the billboard-size petitions that will be sent to the FAA letting officials know that user fees and the huge increase in fuel taxes proposed in the FAA reauthorization bill are unacceptable. Those billboard petitions also will be at Oshkosh and other aviation events throughout the summer.

The Bush administration says user fees are necessary to fund the Next Generation Air Transportation System. FAA officials, who claim there’s a pending deficit in the Aviation Trust Fund, add that user fees are a fairer way to fund ATC improvements.

AOPA and other general aviation alphabet groups say there’s no truth to that. A study conducted by AOPA found that under the current system, the FAA will actually have $20 billion for modernization in the next decade, with $4.5 billion remaining in the trust fund.

“We’ve surveyed our members and 88% say they will fly less with user fees and the increased fuel taxes,” Boyer said.

The proposed increase in fuel taxes is huge. Pilots now pay 19.4 cents per gallon in federal taxes. Under the proposal, that will jump to 70.1 cents.

“A 70-cent jump just floors me,” said Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) in a taped piece used during Boyer’s talk. “This is going to make the skies safer because nobody will able to fly but the airlines.”

The airlines, of course, favor user fees. While GA will see greatly increased costs, AOPA estimates that the legacy airlines will see costs drop by 1.27 times, while low-cost carriers will see a 1.15 times reduction in costs. “That’s a $1.7 billion savings for airlines,” Boyer said.

Even more ominous, according to Boyer, is that the administration’s proposal calls for Congress to no longer have oversight over FAA. Rather, it would be overseen by a 13-member board made up of industry representatives. GA is expected to have one, possibly two, seats on the board, which means it will never be able to come up with a majority of votes to override the airlines, Boyer said.

“The airlines have proven they can’t run their own businesses,” he said. “Do we want them to run the ATC system the way they run their companies?”

The news actually gets worse. Airports will receive $1 billion less each year through the Airport Improvement Program, while federal matching funds will drop to 90% of a project, down from 95%. The bill also would eliminate a $150,000 entitlement that all GA airports get now to use on any project they want. “That has been a boon for small airports,” Boyer said. “You can see now why we are so incensed.”

What also makes GA officials mad is the airlines’ claim that “they” pay too much for the ATC system. “Who pays the tax?” Boyer asked. “It’s not the airlines, it’s the passengers.”

In actuality, the 7.5% passenger tax on each ticket is collected by the airlines, who hold it for up to three months, then send it to the federal government.

Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of the user fee debate is that GA advocates see it as just the beginning.

“Once you allow user fees for one segment of aviation, the next time around, what will happen?” Boyer asked. “They’ll add corporate planes, then what’s next? Any plane flying IFR. Then they’ll get down to charging fees for VFR.”

During his presentation, Boyer ran video clips from pilots in several countries where user fees are already enacted. In many European countries, there are fees for telephone briefings, filing flight plans, ILS approaches, landing fees, and even airways charges. Fees for a typical flight can add up to hundreds of dollars.

User fees in Australia have “almost destroyed” GA, according to Dick Smith, the former head of AOPA Australia, as well as the former head of that country’s version of the FAA. “I believe the same will happen in the U.S. if the proposal goes ahead,” he said.

There is hope. Key officials in Congress and the Senate have come out against user fees, with Florida Senator Bill Nelson telling the crowd in a taped piece that he’s ready to “send that particular proposal into File 13.”

The comment that got the crowd laughing, however, was from Robin Hayes, a pilot and congressman from North Carolina. “I think the FAA has been drinking the airlines’ Kool-Aid,” he said.

What can you do to fight user fees? Sign the petition. If your elected representatives are on the committees that are now considering the bill — the Senate Commerce Committee and Aviation and Finance subcommittees and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Ways and Means Committee, as well as the Aviation subcommittee — write to them. “If you go to someone who’s not on one of those committees, they’re just going to give you a blank stare,” he advised.

Once the bill comes out of committee, expected at the end of May, then all pilots can contact their elected representatives.

“We’re in a 10-round fight,” Boyer said. “We’re at the end of the fourth round and we don’t have too much blood on us right now. But, like any fight, there could be a knockout punch. The airlines have a war chest and are ready to fight.”

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