General aviation user fee civility

User fees have reared their head in President Obama’s fiscal year 2013 proposed budget. Longtime General Aviation News columnist Charles Spence wrote about a letter 100 mayors sent to President Obama regarding the budget’s potential $100-per-flight fee. The comments that follow are interesting. Commenter “gbin” says: “I wonder how many of the mayors who signed that letter were deliberately misled into thinking that the user fee pertains to all or nearly all of general aviation, rather than just to jet aircraft users?” and continues with “I wonder why the author of this piece felt entitled to obscure the rather significant fact that piston aircraft users — the great majority of general aviation — are exempt from the fee (as certain other writers here have also omitted), and to label the Obama administration’s proposal as “attacks on GA” (rather more politically partisan than most reporting here)?”

Fair enough gbin. The budget clearly states, “All piston aircraft, military aircraft, public aircraft, air ambulances, aircraft operating outside of controlled airspace, and Canada-to-Canada flights would be exempted.” Phew.

For proper context, read the entire section pertaining to general aviation fees [pages 30 and 31] from President Obama’s proposed budget: “Share Payments More Equitably for Air Traffic Services. All flights that use controlled air space require a similar level of air traffic services. However, commercial and general aviation can pay very different aviation fees for those same air traffic services. To reduce the deficit and more equitably share the cost of air traffic services across the aviation user community, the Administration proposes to create a $100 per flight fee, payable to the Federal Aviation Administration, by aviation operators who fly in controlled airspace. All piston aircraft, military aircraft, public aircraft, air ambulances, aircraft operating outside of controlled airspace, and Canada-to-Canada flights would be exempted. This fee would generate an estimated $7.4 billion over 10 years. Assuming the enactment of the fee, total charges collected from aviation users would finance roughly three-fourths of airport investments and air traffic control system costs.”

Further down the comment chain, gbin says, “I’m not opposed to user fees in general (and I’m still weighing my thoughts on this user fee on turbine aircraft), and I see very little reason and no real evidence supporting the contention that this user fee will subsequently extend to piston aircraft…”

There is NO evidence “supporting the contention that this user fee will subsequently extend to piston aircraft…” I can’t predict the future. None of us can, with certainty. However, in the 2013 proposed budget, the section immediately preceding the Air Traffic Services section is titled, “Reform the Aviation Passenger Security Fee to Reflect the Costs of Aviation Security More Accurately.” In that section, a few little nuggets read as follows: “As risk changes, however, so too must the way in which we fund our aviation security efforts.” I can imagine a future budget stating, “As aircraft performance has evolved, we find more and more piston-powered aircraft operating in controlled airspace. Piston-powered aircraft are currently exempt from the $100 per flight fee, thus benefiting unfairly from the fee turbine aircraft must pay.”

… “replace the statutorily limited $2.50 per passenger enplanement with a maximum fee of $5 per one-way trip fee with a statutory fee minimum of $5, with annual incremental increases of 50 cents from 2014 to 2018, resulting in a fee of $7.50 in 2018 and thereafter; and allow the Secretary of Homeland Security to adjust the fee (to an amount equal to or greater than the new statutory fee minimum) through regulation when necessary.” What was formerly the maximum fee allowed is now the minimum. Additionally, the minimum will climb another 50% over the next five years, and still allow the Secretary of Homeland Security to adjust “through regulation when necessary.”

… “The proposed fee would collect an estimated $9 billion in additional fee revenue over five years, and $25.5 billion over 10 years. Of this amount, $18 billion will be deposited into the General Fund for debt reduction.” The goal of the $100 per flight fee is to “reduce the deficit and more equitably share the cost of air traffic services.” Debt reduction precedes cost coverage in the proposal.

The Aviation Passenger Security Fee was enacted in 2001 and was “originally intended to recover the full costs of aviation security.” However, it “recovers only 43% of the Transportation Security Administration’s aviation security costs.”

So while there is no evidence “supporting the contention that this user fee will subsequently extend to piston aircraft…”, there is a proposal on the table from President Obama (which admittedly, hasn’t yet been enacted) that greatly expands the ability of Homeland Security to collect user fees.

Since these examples have yet to be enacted, I read through the General Accounting Office’s December 1997 report to Congress titled, “Federal User Fees: Budgetary Treatment, Status, and Emerging Management Issues” which anyone can download here. [Thank you to AOPA for the link].

Included are examples of agency fees, once enacted, that were greatly expanded. Some of my favorites:

“In fiscal year 1991, FCC received less than 1% of its new budget authority from user fees. By fiscal year 1996 user fees made up 71% of the agency’s new budget authority.”

“In fiscal year 1991, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) received 19% of its new budget authority from user charges. Beginning that year, user fees became an increasingly important component of SEC appropriations so that by fiscal year 1996 these fees made up 70% of the agency’s new budget authority.”

But step away from these examples (there are more if you’ll take my word for it), and turn to Page 23 of the report. Under a section titled “Fee-Reliant Agencies Face Unique Management Issues” the GAO states, “To the extent that fee-reliant agencies also provide services to the general public and do not receive general fund appropriations, fees may have to be set to subsidize non-fee-related costs and activities, which can prompt further conflicts between the fee payers and those receiving these broader benefits.”

A quick Google search turned up a few more recent fee increases. Two examples are USDA’s Animal and Animal Product Import user fees increase effective October 2011 and an increase of fees the IRS charges for “determination letters and other rulings” effective February 2011. The same fee notice includes, “the IRS requires that a Courier 10 point font only is to be used when preparing an application.” Uh, okay.

OK, so the above two examples are fee increases, not fee expansions (which would be required for the $100 per flight fee to be applied to piston aircraft). That I’ll admit. But there is example after example of fee increases once the original fee has been enacted. Is it possible to expand the FCC’s reliance on user fees for its annual budget from 1% to 71% without expanding who pays the fee and for what?

Pilots I’ve spoken with agree we need to pay into the Aviation Trust Fund. For those of us who fly privately or in corporate aircraft, our user fees are taken out at the pump. For the airline industry, they pay at the pump while passengers pay when they buy a ticket. The systems are already in place and operate quite efficiently. Besides, if the administration’s second most important goal is to “more equitably share the cost of air traffic services across the aviation user community” then isn’t it most fair for all to pay some?

gbin I apologize if you feel picked on. You’ve brought some very salient points to the discussion. Chief among them is that statements, made by fellow pilots and those in power or positions of influence, must be supported by facts.

That’s what I’ve tried to do here. If I’m wrong, feel free to let me know.

Ben Sclair is publisher of General Aviation News.


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  1. pilotman says

    Hey, gbin, it’s over -you lost- no user fees. what part of “NO” don’t you understand? you remind me of the band player who thinks everyone but him is out of step. Talk about being dishonest, you have repeatedly said you haven’t made up your mind whether or not you want user fees.  it’s very plain from your past rants that you want others  (turbine operators) to pay, but not you. Have a great day.

  2. pilotman says

    Frank, your comments are right on target, and reflect the views of the vast majority of pilots. keep up the good work Mr. sclair 

    • Frank R. Sandoval says

      Thank you for your comment Pilotman. I am not naive enough to have a simplistic view of human nature. However, while we can disagree with the views of the writers of this excellent publication, and each other on principles and policies, the designed purpose of this blog is to share and help each other. I would be willing to bet even money that the main goal of the principles funding this publication is our flight safety. They provide information to us and we in turn share our experiences on the issue to benefit the greater good. In my view, it is improper to make this blog a political platform by attacking the character of the writers and their work, who diligently research their difficult assignments and make their efforts available to us. Making this blog a platform for self-serving purposes will materialize a dangerous environment that benefits no one. Our national system provides a more powerful and proper means of taking care of that business, as others have pointed out with results confirming same. In my humble view, when we use this blog to express our own agendas, we violate the privilege to participate.

  3. Frank R. Sandoval says

    Thank you for an excellent and most informative article, Mr. Sclair. It appears that it has touched some of the emotions at the center of the reasoning process of a particular commentor and adjusted some of the strengths of his conclusions with the strength of your evidence. Maybe.

  4. bigbandera says

    I’ll try again- What’s FAIR is simply this – you use it – you pay, you don’t - you don’t!
    All the other c–p makes for filler in an otherwise fine publication!

  5. Rod Beck says

    OPTION 1.  If you can’t afford the Turnpike, you can  take 1/9″ (non-toll road)
          “      2.  You can give up driving and walk
          “      3.  Tell your Daddy/Mommy your being bullied by “Big Brother”!
                      Time to grow up – get it – anyone?

  6. pilotman says

    Sorry to have hit a nerve, gbin. Like I said, have a great day.

    As far as winners and losers, Those who want fair, equal treatment for all,won.  Those who wanted to raise taxes/fees on others lost. Simple as that.

  7. pilotman says

    gbin, you shouldn’t be such a sore loser just because you didn’t get user fees in the FAA bill.  As I said, have a great day.  I am.

    • gbin says

      Still another blatant mischaracterization of my position, eh?  Another obvious projection, too, given that you’re clearly the one seeing things in such childish terms as winners and losers.  If the issue is over for you, pilotman, why are you still so worked up that you have to keep posting personal attacks here?  Oh well…

  8. pilotman says

    Hey, gbin, it doesn’t matter what you or I think . User fees will NOT be enacted.If you can’t decide whether you’re for or against them why are you spending so much time attacking the writer of the article opposing them? If you are so adamant about things being Equitable, why do you think some should pay $100/flight and others should pay nothing?

    Douglas and others are right- the FAA doesn’t have an income problem. It has a spending problem. I believe they will somehow squeak by on the $16,000,000,000.00 annual budget approved by Congress without user fees.

    Have a great day

    • gbin says

      Well done, pilotman!  First you fabricated a narrative for me to support the motive you falsely attributed to me, then you followed that up by blatantly ignoring some of the things I’ve said and misrepresenting others.  Keep up the great work, and maybe someday you’ll be successful in chasing off everyone who doesn’t think exactly as you do!

      What a class act!

  9. pilotman says

    I believe that gbin flies a skyhawk and has a business that has income from the FAA.. that is why he wants user fees. He wants to tax others, but not himself.  He is absolutely out of touch with the vast majority of pilots and plane owners.

    Anyone who doesn’t think user fees would be increased and applied to piston planes must also believe in the tooth fairy.  Someone would quickly figure out that piston planes fly slower than turbines, and therefore spend more time talking to controllers. Come to think of it, maybe the fees on piston planes should be higher than turbines. After all, piston plane owners don’t pay their fair share because they don’ pay nearly as much fuel tax.  BTW, I fly  piston planes.  

    • gbin says

      In psychological terms, I believe that attributing a characteristic (such as selfish motive) to someone else that one actually has in a marked degree oneself is called “projection.”

      This discussion isn’t about me (much as that might disappoint you, pilotman), but for the record I’ll say that in general I’m not opposed to paying taxes and fees myself, nor to others paying taxes and fees.  Indeed, I recognize that such are necessary for the proper function of society – from which we’ve all greatly benefitted, all of our lives.  I do care about fair and equitable treatment, but as I said above, equitable isn’t the same thing as equal.

      I suspect a great many pilots and plane owners share my outlook, though perhaps most prefer not to participate in discussions such as this one in order to avoid the personal attacks that inevitably appear.  Congratulations (I guess) by the way, pilotman, for being the first to bring a personal attack to this thread.

  10. Douglas W. Rodrigues says

    If the politicians would just STOP SPENDING MONEY WE DON’T HAVE, these taxes wouldn’t be necessary.

  11. Loo Moo says

    Jesus.. can’t we just raise the fuel tax and be done with this “fairness” nonsense? How is it fair if one airplane pays $100 and another does not? How is it fair if that $100 fee does not depend on the duration of the flight or airplane weight?
    This whole $100 idea looks like it was conceived by a egyptian toilet bakshish collector.

  12. Strikemama says

    Of all the ways that a fee could be collected a per flight fee would require the most manpower.   Why change a system that is already working for one that is hard to manage an collect.  I flew a Cessna up to Alaska a few years ago the Canadains charge you a quarterly use fee of at that time $25 or 30 canadian that covered there government ran ATC system.  It was worth it to, it was just like the old FSS system we used to have in the USA with $5 or 6 dollars canadian in for the landing fee, in most cases I just used there 800 number and gave them a credit card number to bill.  Seems years before the government gave the airports to the province or city and they came up with there own way to fund it.  Most of the airports had a gas fee that was added into your gas purchase and they got there money at the time, others had people who tried to collect the money after the fact.  I can imagine if I didn’t pay they would not let me land there again! 

    I you want to collect some money how about make the airlines pay a higher gas tax, they use more of the sevices than the GA world does.  The airline now pay a 4.5 cent a gallon fee for ATC services but Corporate aircraft must pay a gas tax that is 27.5 cents (or is that the old number).  I saw a statement recently I think from the AOPA where they said a 737 flying from LAX to SFO pay much less gas tax than a corporate jet like a Gulfstream  flying the same route.  Why don’t the airlines pay more, because they are a commercial venture, will so are the corporate aircraft.  Any profits the corporation make due to the use of there aircraft they must pay taxes on to the IRS.  If you think I must have a bone to pick with the airline I don’t hell they have been paying me for over 16 years and will have me for the next 4 years.  I say what isn’t fair is that the corporate side pays so much and often uses less of the system, often cancelling IFR and flying visual to there destination, and only using the high altitude structure for the enroute portion of the flight.  

    We must be vigilant to not do to our GA what has been done in Europe and most other countries in the world.  They have distroyed there GA systems in the interest of Fairness to the airlines.   

  13. gbin says

    First and foremost, Mr. Sclair, thank you very much for your thoughtful contribution to the discussion of the turbine aircraft user fee!  Relying on honest assessment and reasoned argument rather than the hyperbole and vitriol that has become all too common in public debate these days, your editorial is a credit to your publication.  I couldn’t have hoped for a better response (and as you know from my previous comments at this website, my hopes tend to run pretty high – some would even say unrealistically so).  May we all strive to follow your example!

    As to your argument, you correctly anticipated one of my principal responses:  Fee increases are not at all the same thing as fee expansions.  Where fees are in place, one would reasonably expect them to increase with time just as do other costs; it’s a simple economic reality that we all must face.  (Whether the fees increase a reasonable amount can be another matter entirely, of course.)  I’m not one of those who sees user fees and taxes as the same thing, but for those who do, I’ll point out that taxes have in fact decreased in recent American history, especially for certain segments of our society.  I don’t know for certain, but I suspect user fees are in general less likely to do so.

    Likewise, the potential for fee expansions is not at all the same as its actuality.  I can easily enough join you in your exercise of imagination, and even imagine for myself far worse future scenarios, but at present imaginings are all they remain.  Mind you, I don’t doubt that examples can be found (even if your research didn’t turn them up) of fee expansions sometime, somewhere, too.  But that still doesn’t mean that general aviation should mobilize to fight against your, my or anyone else’s fears about where the current user fee might or might not someday lead us.  Vigilance is called for, absolutely, and I applaud your efforts and those of other leaders in general aviation in this regard.  Indeed, I promise to do my small part for that effort, as well.

    So, taking the current user fee for what it actually is rather than what it might become, what do we think of it?  For my part, by this point I guess that I’m leaning in favor of it (though I’m still considering arguments on either side).  I certainly understand your concern about the monies from the fee going toward debt reduction as well as (not to mention more than) cost coverage.  In my opinion, though, we need both debt reduction and cost coverage, and if this fee manages to contribute in both ways to any meaningful degree then I see this as an argument for it rather than against it.

    Finally, I’d like to address your question that “if the administration’s second most important goal is to ‘more equitably share the cost of air traffic services across the aviation user community’ then isn’t it most fair for all to pay some?”  First, as you mentioned, all do in fact pay some, via fuel (and other) taxes for aviators and user fees and taxes for passengers.  Second, I’m obliged to point out that equitable is not the same thing as equal.  Many people in America today confuse these two terms and the confusion causes a lot of strife, so it’s worth spending a moment on clarifying them.  Equal treatment would be for everyone who uses a service to pay the same amount for that service, or if they use the service to different degrees to pay proportionally to what they receive (such as a fuel tax).  Equitable treatment endeavors to take into account additional differences between people such as ability to pay.  The remaining progressive elements of our income tax system reflect an effort to be equitable rather than equal in how we pay for our society.  People can – and obviously do – argue about which is more fair, but being both fortunate enough to have and aware of those unfortunate enough to have not, I personally favor equitable over equal treatment.

    And the debate on that subject has more to do with our current subject than might first seem the case.  Let me ask, who among us thinks that general aviation could easily survive a $100 user fee on everyone, including those who operate piston aircraft?  I’d argue, and I think many others here would as well if they’re being honest, that those who operate turbine aircraft for business or pleasure can indeed afford such a fee (albeit unhappily, maybe in some cases even bitterly), whereas a great many piston aircraft pilots simply could not.  Now, why would the present or any other administration put forth a fee that would merely destroy the base from which they mean to obtain the fee?  They wouldn’t, of course, as it would incur a far greater political cost than the financial reward.  For this reason I don’t believe they’ll ever be foolish enough to try to impose such a devastating fee expansion on general aviation – but as I said before, we should be watchful, regardless.

    • Radf9760 says

      Let me assure you that those of us who are at the bottom of the GA totem pole, those of us most vulnerable to any form of increased cost, we oppose a $100 increase on anyone. 

      No one is being tricky or obfuscating, we just don’t agree with you that an increase in costs is acceptable.

      • gbin says

        “… we oppose a $100 increase on anyone.”

        Well, you do, Radf9760, and certainly so do some others here.  But that doesn’t mean everyone does; I, for example, may feel otherwise depending on what exactly the fee turns out to be.  Misrepresenting the situation to pretend that everyone is united on your side of this issue is only persuasive to those who already agree with you or are unaware of dissent.

        “No one is being tricky or obfuscating…”

        That has so clearly not been true, most notably with respect to much of your own comment writing (if not in response to this report, then in response to other related reports), that it in itself clearly qualifies as tricky/obfuscating.  Read Mr. Sclair’s well-written report above again before you again try that particularl deceit.

        “… we just don’t agree with you that an increase in costs is acceptable.”

        More utter nonsense.  I was under vigorous attack from commenters such as yourself (although not you yourself until just lately) from the time I first posted a comment after a report on the proposed user fee, just because I asked for honest reporting about it by people in positions of authority in general aviation.  I hadn’t expressed an opinion of the user fee one way or another, and in fact didn’t for quite some time because I was still considering the matter, but that didn’t stop numerous people from taking all kinds of ridiculous swipes at me for (according to them) being “an Obama-lover,” “an Obama plant,” asserting that I must be such-and-such a kind of pilot or no pilot at all, that I must be championing the fee, etc.  You joined in with more such nonsense well after it began, and you could certainly see along with those others what I was actually saying.  It didn’t matter to you.

        Obviously, what people such as yourself really want is just for no one to say anything that even hints at dissension with your popular hue and cry, nor even to ask that people merely do the honest thing and refrain from misrepresenting the situation in your viewpoint’s favor.  If someone does speak up about anything you don’t like – certainly not necessarily in favor of a general aviation user fee - you have to try to slam him/her hard with every underhanded trick you can think of and hopefully chase him/her into silence.  I’ve certainly met plenty of other pilots who feel as I do about such nonsense, but given how infrequently they post to object to it here I suppose you must be to some extent effective.  Effective, but disgusting.

        It’s also counterproductive in at least one way.  You know, it would be a lot easier for more open-minded people such as myself to focus on and perhaps even be persuaded by your arguments against the user fee (or on whatever other topic) if you restricted yourself to making those arguments simply and truthfully, without including all of the garbage you sling at (possible) dissenters.  HONEST discussion might not particularly interest you, but it does have its merits.

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