What’s wrong with user fees?

The Oct. 7 issue of General Aviation News included several articles warning against the dire consequences of user fees being proposed by our federal government. In a letter to the editor, Kevin Mossey even made the astounding claim that we “all need to sacrifice” by accepting higher fuel taxes. One can only imagine that he works for the government, the only sector of our economy that has not experienced Great Depression-era unemployment the past three years.

In this same issue of GAN, LSA expert Dan Johnson reported that 122 new S-LSA models have been certified in the past six-and-a- half years. Congratulations Dan! Most of these aircraft come from European nations that have funded their aviation infrastructure through user fees for decades, hardly consistent with the gloom-and-doom predictions from our aviation alphabets.

As someone who flies regularly in my second home of Germany, I do not see this purported devastation over there. One major difference, however, is that many German recreational pilots are members of clubs that own a fleet of well-maintained aircraft and operate their own private airfields, which typically include nice amenities such as restaurants, playgrounds, and camping facilities. Many such clubs have reciprocity agreements with others that result in very low user fees, if any at all.

What federal aviation services do we — as sport aviators — really require? Most of us fly day VFR from uncontrolled airfields, many of which are privately-owned. We get our weather and occasionally file a flight plan via the Internet. We can check weather and traffic enroute with handheld devices, and we communicate with CTAF (if anyone is listening) without the help of ATC. We pay for our own fuel infrastructure, our hangars, maintenance and training. A pay-as-you-go system is consistent with the means through which all consumers acquire goods and services now from the private sector, which, through the magic of free markets, guarantees us the best value and selection from a multitude of suppliers.

Those GA pilots who do fly IFR and operate out of large controlled airfields where user fees would be higher are more likely to be using aircraft for business and can — unlike sport aviators — deduct many of their expenses, depreciate their aircraft, and pass their aviation-related costs on to their own customers.

I suggest that the aviation alphabets stop screaming “Wolf!” and have a look at how things are being handled in Germany these days. One thing is certain: The way we’re now funding things, with temporary budget extensions, creates uncertainty that has in fact added to the devastation of our sport aviation community in recent years. Instead of looking for a solution to come from the source of most of our problems — our own government — I recommend a sharp turn to starboard and push to privatize as much of our aviation infrastructure as possible. The industry-driven ASTM method of LSA certification and the success of European flying clubs and private airfields are two good indicators that this is the best course to follow in the future.

Kent Misegades is an aerospace engineer, aviation sales rep for U-Fuel, and president of EAA1114 in Cary, N.C., who writes the Gafuels Blog with Dean Billing.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    Kent, I understand your mission to simplify the system, and we can argue whether or not one could pay the provider directly, but there is absolutely, positively no way the government will discontinue the jetfuel or avgas tax.. The user fee proposal is for one reason ,that is to increase revenue. Period. As far as paying equitably, the bigger plane you fly, the more fuel you burn, and the more tax you pay.

  2. Kent Misegades says

    Pilotman – I never said that user fees would go to the federal government, and I agree that states and local government are more efficient, but none compare to the private sector, they don’t even come close.  I have always stated that user fees should go directly to the provider, which in many cases would be a private company, for instance an FBO or flight service, which is Lockheed-Martin I believe. They should not be implemented without complete elimination of all other forms of fees/taxes on fuel, permits, etc.  just as the FairTax can only be implemented after the repeal of the federal income tax.  I am a supplier to GA airports, most of which are publicly-owned.  The red tape and time it takes to extract money from our government originally paid by pilots through taxes is ridiculous; I would guess that 50% of the money is wasted by all the bureaucrats, middle men and the crony capitalists who steer airports toward projects that are more lucrative to the airport industry and do nothing to improve airport safety or lower the cost of aviation.  Look at fuel stations – only about 1/3rd in the US are self-service, yet nearly 100% of all gas stations are self-service.  Self-service is more convenient, saves airports money and lowers the cost of flying, yet federal dollars may not fund these.  Instead, we get gold-plated FBO buildings at small-town airfields, expensive LEED buildings that are empty, and solar farms to feed contrived artificial markets for over-priced energy.   If we all paid for the services and facilities we need, all this nonsense would end overnight.  Yes, if you fly a turbine aircraft and need ATC, you will pay more than a guy who flies his autogas-powered Champ with no radio around his own grass strip once a month.  Sounds fair to me whether I fly a Champ or a jet.  The billing for this can be automated based on tail numbers – probably much simpler than collecting fuel taxes.  The fact remains, a great deal of new technology and innovation as well as most of our new LSAs come from Europe, despite their use of user fees, contrary to all the doom-and-gloom talk about them.   I think it’s time we took a deep breath and looked at alternatives to the broken system we have in the US.  

  3. pilotman says

    Kent,

    I appreciate your background and dedication, but in this country there is nothing the federal government can do more efficiently than the state and local govt’s. If user fees were enacted, there would be another bureaucracy created to handle them. The fuel taxes would not cease. The only reason for user fees is to increase revenue. The current system of federal fuel taxes is simple-you pay the taxes when you buy the fuel. You do not get billed later as you would with user fees. It appears that you favor user fees, because you will not be paying them, as you do not fly turbine aircraft, and probably do not often use ATC. That is OK, but I do not think you should be advocating increased costs for others. BTW, the user fees would not go directly to the provider of the service- they would go to the Federal government      

  4. says

    A few additional comments from the author:

    1. Of course I propose user fees instead of all other means used now to fund aviation. Just like the FairTax requires an end to all other forms of federal taxes and fees, user fees for aviation would require and end to all federal aviation taxes and fees, and revenues from the user fees would go directly to the provider of the facility or service, cutting out many layers of bureaucracy.

    2. Fees reduce layers of government, they don’t add. They’d go directly from the pilot to the facility providing the service.  Consider how it’s done now in the US: (a) taxes collected by an airport from fuel sales, (b) taxes sent to state DOT, (c) state DOT sends to FAA in DC, (d) FAA apportions by state, (e) FAA sends back to state DOTs, (f) state DOTs apportion depending on who is loudest.  Each step results in losses and more bureaucracy and is tempting for lobbies/crony capitalists to game the system.  That’s also why you’ll find shiny new gold-plated FBOs at otherwise dead airports – some crony capitalist figured out how to game the system. This could never happen if the FBO were paid solely from revenue collected locally.

    3. Europeans come to the US to learn to fly due mainly to good weather.  Europe has VFR conditions at best 50% of the year.  Latest generation of LSAs in Europe has changed things, it’s cheaper to learn to fly these, especially when in a club. You don’t see many of our old ‘spam cans’ used for flight training over there.  The US still had  a huge fleet of these older planes, and much cheaper avgas, in years past.   Europeans use mostly autogas in their LSA-class aircraft, lowering the relative costs.

    4. My comments are directed towards sport/recreational aviation, not business/IFR use of GA aircraft.  Sport aviators have limited means and pay for all their own flight training and ownership.

    5. Socialism – you do not have to look to Europe to find all the problems it causes.  You won’t find a stronger defender of American free market capitalism and Exceptionalism than this author, but there are many aspects of German aviation that we should seriously consider, without the usual cliches regarding things that happened there 70-80 years ago.

    6. Anecdotal?  If anything, the comments from others below are.  I studied aerodynamics at the Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics in Brussels, 79-80.  Worked as an aerodynamicist for Dornier, 80-84. Ran the German office for a Chicago-based engineering firm from 91-96. Speak fluent German. Learned to fly gliders at the famed Hornberg school east of Stuttgart.  My home base in Germany is Mengen (EDTM), one of southern Germany’s best-known GA airports and home to multiple flying clubs. I have traveled and reported extensively on sport aviation and aircraft manufactures in Europe in GAN and EAA publications and was the EAA’s correspondent at AERO, Europe’s largest GA show, in 2009 and 2010. Started flying as a teenager in Louisville, KY in 1973, always paid all my own flying bills.

    Facit – if we want more freedom (I sure do) we need to reduce government meddling in what we do.  Paying directly to the provider of a product or service is how free markets work.   What we currently use to fund aviation does just the opposite and assures a continuation of a slow, archaic, bloated, ineffective bureaucracy at state and federal levels.   Since most new aircraft designs for sport aviators have originated in Europe the past decade, perhaps it’s time to reconsider our bias against what they’re doing.

    Consider this:  the world’s largest maker of light aircraft today is Italy’s Tecnam. The world’s largest producer of piston aircraft engines is Austria’s Rotax.  Who really believes that they would have reached this level of success unless they had strong local markets for their products?

  5. says

    Adding user fees also adds another layer or more of government dedicated solely to the purpose of collecting the fees, diluting their effectiveness and then requiring higher fees.  We pay fees now through fuel tax, keep the money going where it should and there should be enough.  The problem is government continues to rob one fund to pay for something else and then cries that we will lose the service if we don’t raise taxes.  Europeans come here to learn to fly, I see them at my airport’s flight school.  Ever heard of an American going to Europe to learn?  America’s general aviation is more than a few LSA’s flying around for a camping trip or a picnic, although we do that also.

  6. Rod Beck says

    Simple solution; The “E-Z Pass” System will be coming soon at an airport near you -You use the facilities – you PAY – if not, you DON’T!  One might also keep in mind the Autobon also “doubled” as a runway during Hitler’s reign. Perhaps Germany has a lot of “toll cheats”? How about a FIRST home in Germany and the SECOND in the US? ps  It seems to me this idealistic author may have been a former resident of “Pleasantville”- the little town in the 1998 film of the same name!  

  7. says

    The information above is what we call anecdotal evidence.  The countries in Europe have had to add more and more fees and taxes to try to keep their socialistic coffers full.  All one needs to do is read about the fact that Europe is about to lose the Euro.

    If we add more fuel taxes and/or user fees, we will see GA decline even further.  It is ridiculous to think that this would not have any effect on how much people fly.

  8. Segfwge says

    Author obviously went to coffeshop in Amsterdam where he met a german guy who happened to be a pilot. I have my doubts about the great state of aviation in
    Germany.

  9. pilotman says

    It’s obvious that the writer of this article will not be flying a plane that will be subject to user fees. If user fees get started they will spread first to piston twins and on down so that anyone who flies IFR will eventually be paying. We don’t need to get class warfare started between segments of general aviation- Obama has already done that.  I do not fly an LSA, nor do most pilots. I think it is great that there is a new category for pilots that don’t need planes for business purposes,however a large segment of aircraft owners  do use them for business purposes, and don’t need higher taxes or fees.

    Putting in user fees would result in fewer pilots filing IFR flight plans, instead going VFR whenever possible.  That will lessen safety and increase the likelyhood of accidents.

    If Europe is so great, why do they have emmisions trading and many other restrictive regulations? It’s easy to see why so many LSAs come from Europe-they have severely damaged traditional general aviation.

    Another good question, If Europeans are  so smart why is the continent Broke? As screwed up as the USA is under our current leadership, Europe is much worse.       

  10. Pb says

    We have user fees already at larger, controlled airfields – they are called Ramp Fees and fuel gouges. 
    The problem with government user fees is that they never replace other fees that are covered by the fuel taxes. The Australian example shows that, when faced with fees, pilots will do a lot to avoid paying them. A fee for a weather briefing – on’t get a briefing. Fee for ATC – fly below 5,000 AGL with no flight plan and there is no fee – also no safety net.
    User fees work against public safety and the experience in foreign jurisdictions shows that this is one area that should be avoided. The cost of collection is huge and the net income is actually small, so why have it?

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