“Preaching to the choir”: GA advocates and elected officials rally Air Venture crowds against user fees

In the fight for user fees, the airlines are using a time-tested tactic: Divide and conquer.

“We’ve been told that the bulk of GA won’t have to worry about user fees,” EAA President Tom Poberezny said during one of several forums on user fees at last month’s AirVenture. “That’s called divide and conquer. We’re all part of the GA community.”

Besides saying user fees are only for the bizjet crowd, airline and FAA officials say that GA is over-reacting about user fees, noting that if a person can afford an airplane, he or she can afford user fees.

That’s not the point, say GA advocates — as well as several members of the House of Representatives aviation subcommittee who traveled to Oshkosh.

A $25 per flight user fee, which the airlines and FAA officials call a “fair way” to fund FAA operations and the modernization of the nation’s air traffic control system, will actually raise less money, while necessitating more bureaucracy to collect the fees. “There are some estimates that it will cost up to $125 to process a $25 user fee,” noted Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association.

Adjusting the fuel taxes — which, of course, means raising taxes — would generate enough revenue to maintain the current system, as well as move forward to the Next Generation ATC system, “whatever that will be,” said Jerry Costello (D-Ill.), who is chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, which “unanimously” rejected user fees. Costello was joined at Oshkosh by six other members of the committee, as well as Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who told the AirVenture crowd that they will fight user fees vigorously.

When the FAA first proposed user fees, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), described by his colleagues as a “nuclear physicist type,” declared it “dead on arrival.”

“I’m a scientist,” he said, “so that was not a political statement, it was a scientific observation.

“Government does work in America,” he continued. “And you have the most powerful tool — your vote. We can beat it simply because of that.”

The user fee battle, raging in the halls of Congress as the House bill and the Senate bill make their way through committees, will ultimately find its way to a conference committee, where a bipartisan group of senators and representatives will hammer out a compromise bill — one with no user fees, declared all the members of the House aviation subcommittee who attended Oshkosh, as well as Inhofe (see separate story on page 14).

JOIN THE FIGHT

What can pilots do to fight user fees?

Let your senators and representatives know that you oppose Senate Bill 1300 and support House Bill 2881. Write the White House and let President Bush know as well, they advised. “Send letters and emails and make phone calls to tell them to say no to user fees,” Costello said.

Include staff members of elected officials in those communications as well. Often they are key influences on a senator or representative.

Most important, realize you’re not in the fight alone. EAA, AOPA, NBAA, the newly formed Alliance for Aviation and other advocacy groups are aggressively fighting user fees, while pilots and aviation enthusiasts are making their voices heard in the Senate halls in Washington, D.C.

“Hearing from you is most important,” said Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), “but they will be hearing from us as well.”

THE TICKING CLOCK

Time is running out to make your voice heard. The current FAA Reauthorization legislation expires Sept. 30. While Congress is in recess this month, it will have to jump on the legislation as soon as members return in September.

“If we don’t get a bill to the President by the time this legislation expires, we’ll have to do a short-term extension of the existing legislation,” Costello said.

The FAA has enough money to operate for 45 days after the Sept. 30 deadline, noted Tom Petri (D-Wis.).

The airlines don’t care if the deadline comes without a bill, noted AOPA President Phil Boyer. “It happened years ago and the airlines kept collecting taxes from their passengers, but didn’t send the money on to the government,” he said. “That’s another reason for the airlines to play against us.”

GA battling the airlines is definitely a David vs. Goliath fight. “We can’t match the airlines,” Boyer said. “Their funding is significant. So we’re targeting our message in a laser-focused way.”

While the airlines have been courting the general public to see things their way — that most of the delays in the national airspace system are caused by GA — most GA advocates don’t think the sales pitch is working.

“Look out the window the next time you are on an airliner and see how many GA planes are in line,” Boyer said. “Not many — we avoid those airports like the plague.”

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