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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