The FAA propaganda machine: Has you local newspaper fallen victim?

If you had any doubts as to whether the FAA was going to mount a full-scale attempt to secure increased general aviation funding for the Next Generation Air Traffic Control system, let me make it very clear: they are in full attack mode.

How do I know that?

Probably the most obvious reason I came to that conclusion was an editorial in “The News Tribune,” a McClatchy Publications daily newspaper in Tacoma, Wash.

Obviously the FAA’s Northwest Region has seen fit to encourage local media to write about these perceived problems and “The News Tribune” obviously agreed with them. Of course, there’s a great deal of information that is both factual and positive. But, there are several digs at general aviation included.

For example, the editorial points out that everyone today can (and does) use GPS for navigation down the highways and waterways but, according to the editorial’s opening paragraph, “air traffic controllers still have to rely for the most part on land-based radar systems that are yesterday’s technology.”

The editorial goes on to call for Congress to support the Bush administration’s proposal to overhaul the current system of funding the FAA so the agency will be able to buy the modernization program.

According to the newspaper’s editorial, Europe and Australia already use GPS systems, but not the U.S., which continues to fall behind.

So far we can find little to argue with in the editorial, but then it starts delving deeply into the FAA’s propaganda. The editorial continues, quoting Northwest Region Administrator Dennis Roberts: “Moving ahead with ‘NextGen’ satellite-using air-control technology would seem to be a no-brainer. But doing so depends on overhauling the present system of financing airport improvements and air traffic control. And, as usually is the case, conflicting interests in the aviation industry stymie progress.

“The Bush administration proposal would shift more costs from commercial aviation to general aviation, on the grounds that general aviation – which includes corporate jets and private planes – aren’t paying their fair share now,” the editorial continues.

“The FAA calculates that general aviation accounts for 16% of the system’s costs but contributes only 3% of the aviation taxes that pay for it. The new proposal would increase general aviation’s share to 11%. Another way of putting it is that when a full, 200-passenger jetliner flies from New York to Florida, the government collects $2,015 in taxes. A business jet flying the same route imposes the same demands on the air traffic control system, but the government collects only $236.

“As FAA official Roberts likes to say, ‘A blip is a blip is a blip.’ It’s time general aviation paid something closer to its fair share,” the editorial continues.

But those numbers have been disputed, with a study done by the Alliance for Aviation Across America revealing that the FAA’s own documents show that GA contributes 8.6% of the taxes that flow into the Airport and Airways Trust Fund. A 1997 study also found that GA was responsible for 6.7% of the costs of air traffic control.

The current proposal also includes a plan by the administration to do away with the current 7.5% ticket charge and flight segment taxes and allow airports to increase airport passenger fees to $6 from $4.50.

When that 200-passenger airliner produces $2,015 in taxes, those funds aren’t coming from the airlines; they are passenger fees that the proposed legislation would drop and permit airports to increase passenger fees for their facilities.

But wait, it gets even better, as the editorial claims: “Naturally, the proposal doesn’t sit well with general aviation interests, and private plane owners represent a powerful lobby that handily outspends the commercial airline industry.”

Where the idea comes from that GA “represents a powerful lobby that handily outspends the commercial airline industry” is one of the most amazing statements we’ve ever read. It’s hard to think that the lobbying efforts of all the GA organizations come to within a fraction of what The Boeing Co. by itself — let alone all the airlines — spend on lobbying efforts.

Finally, we must agree with a letter from Bob Gardner of Renton, Wash., that was printed in the same newspaper shortly after the editorial came out. He pointed out that the air traffic control system was built and is maintained to make the airlines operate the way they want to operate. General aviation flights can — and do — easily, safely and efficiently operate without the massive and expensive air traffic control system that has been developed.

A good example of this occurred recently when I heard of an airport tower catching fire and having to be evacuated and operations transferred to a remote site. It was my understanding from a TV report I was watching that incoming flights were delayed while operations were restored and outgoing flights were grounded during the period.

The weather was VFR. Those pilots in the cockpits only had to look out their windows to find the airport and nearby traffic and safely make an approach.

The airlines have become so reliant on ATC telling them when and where to do everything that they must have the latest upgrades to make things work. Those pilots are highly qualified and able to get from point to point without being told everything all the time.

If we must upgrade the system, and I strongly believe modernization is necessary, I suggest that the FAA tap some of the GPS manufacturers that have made the devices so effective and easy to use in cars and trucks and buses to create the new system. It can probably be accomplished by some of them at a rate that won’t require exorbitant new fees and it will be done in months, rather than years.

Dave Sclair was co-publisher from 1970-2000.

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