Strong opposition to user fees repeated

Publisher note: This story was updated (see content in parens in the opening paragraph) September 18, 2012.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Obama’s proposal to impose a $100 per-flight user fee (which as currently proposed on Page 31 here exempts, “All piston aircraft, military aircraft, public aircraft, air ambulances, aircraft operating outside of controlled airspace, and Canada-to-Canada flights.”) got a going over Wednesday, Sept.12, in the Small Business Committee of the House of Representatives with strong opposition to it, but with indications that some witnesses and members of the legislature would continue to press for the charge. Just one witness attempted to justify the charge by maintaining that a fee-for-use is the fairest method of raising revenue.

Primary support for the fee came from University Professor Kenneth J. Button, PhD, who insisted that the only fair means of allocating costs for any product or service is a direct fee. He said, “the current system is wrong and fees more attuned to costs would provide signals to users of the economic implications of their flights.” People should pay for the services they receive, he continued, adding that the marketplace then would dictate places and types of services.

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), committee chairman, said the user fee is the wrong approach. Obama’s proposal does not say how such a system would be established. In his opening remarks he said there is little doubt a fee system would stifle job creation and economic growth in the United States. The President’s proposal does not say what kind of an agency would be set up to collect the fees, how the collections would be made, or even if the money collected would go into the aviation trust fund.

Owners of small businesses testified for general aviation organizations. Brad Pierce, president of Restaurant Equipment World, spoke for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, citing the importance of that company’s aircraft as one of his best employees. He told the panel how the aircraft allows him to meet multiple customers in multiple cities in a single day.

Martha King spoke for the National Business Aviation Association. The recession has caused the King Schools to drop from a high of 90 employees to today’s 50 and a fee for use of company aircraft would be “devastating.” Her company, she said, “does not have an army of accountants standing by to process a deluge of new $100 per-flight invoices from some new federal bureaucracy.” She and other panelists preferred an increased fuel tax to a cumbersome fee if additional funds are needed.

Marian Epps, chief financial officer for Epps Aviation in Atlanta, detailed the importance of general aviation in the U.S in her testimony for the National Air Transportation Association. User fees would significantly impede general aviation in the United States for a variety of reasons, she told the committee members.

Committee chairman Graves introduced into the record a letter opposing the user fee concept signed by 195 members of Congress. Imposing a user fee is simply the wrong approach, he said, adding that he and his committee must do everything they can to make sure no user fee is imposed. Graves is a pilot and co-chair of the House General Aviation Caucus.

Committee member Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) grilled panelist Button on why a fee would be more equitable, why a system that has worked for years should be replaced by a massive bureaucracy. “It looks to me,” he told Button, “this is going around with a solution looking for a problem.”

Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY) asked Button to explain the benefits of user fees with questions obviously posed to gain support for the fee structure.

Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-OR) commented that willingness to accept increased fuel taxes if necessary shows the “industry has already come up with a solution.”

The fee proposal is certain to be raised again in other committees and discussions will get more heated if sequestration goes into effect early next year.

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