Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) says he won’t let user fees be imposed on general aviation by the FAA.
“We’re not going to allow that to happen,” Inhofe stated flatly during an interview at Oshkosh.
Although other U.S. Senators hold pilot licenses, Inhofe says he’s the only active pilot currently in the Senate, with the emphasis on “active.” As chairman of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, he has a lot to say about what the FAA may and may not do, but whether his is the last word remains to be seen.
“To be or not to be” is the question where user fees are concerned — and participants in an AirVenture forum on the subject were less assuring than Sen. Inhofe.
Speakers representing general aviation organizations and manufacturers all were outspoken in their opposition to user fees but predicted a very serious fight against the airlines, which favor charging GA for its use of the airways.
EAA President Tom Poberezny described the airlines as “wholly committed to shifting the financial burden and gaining more control of the system” which, he commented dryly, “will not work in favor of general aviation.”
Cessna CEO Jack Pelton addressed, more specifically, why the airlines are “attacking” general aviation. He blamed what he sees as a shift in airline attitude on the fact that fewer passengers are paying premium fares – the ones on which significant profit is made – which, he stated bluntly, is due to poor service, charging for “everything from meals to services on the airplane” and, perhaps most important, the decreasing ability “to get to where you need to go when you need to go.” Even so, Pelton pointed out, “their load factors are up and they are moving toward profitability” as more costs are shifted onto passengers, making them all the more eager to shift other costs onto GA.
Pelton ridiculed the airlines’ position that very light jets will burden the system further. “The very light jets are intended to relieve congestion from the existing 35 hub airports,” he said.
NOT THE SAME FIGHT
The user fee debate is “fundamentally different” this time, said Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA). “The last time there was a user fee debate we had six major airlines which decided that Southwest Airlines needed to be put out of business,” he explained. “All through that debate the major airlines went after the low-cost airlines.”
They said they didn’t care about general aviation, but GA organizations nonetheless expressed concern, worrying that GA would be next.
Now it is. The airlines are looking at their similarities, not their differences, and have decided to gang up on GA, Bolen said. By not going after all of general aviation at once they hope to divide and conquer.
“All of general aviation, united and together, undivided” is needed to defeat the airlines’ strong attack, he concluded.
That point is a particularly keen one for NBAA members because, according to AOPA President Phil Boyer, the Air Transport Association has stated publicly that it doesn’t include “piston-powered aircraft” in its user fees proposal, hoping that politically-powerful groups such AOPA and EAA will stay out of the fray.
Boyer evoked the “camel’s nose under the tent” illustration to explain why all of GA needs to be active in the fight against user fees. “Think about it,” he said. “One segment of general aviation — business aircraft — has user fees, another does not.”
Around the world, he pointed out, there has been a domino effect from jets to turboprops to anyone using the instrument system “and, in many countries today, there are user fees for a lot of VFR flying.”
Everyone in GA has a “legitimate responsibility” to join the battle against user fees, he said. “United we’ll stand, divided we’ll fall,” he said.
USER FEES ARE “KILLING GA’
Two-thirds of all recreational and business flights in the world take place in the United States, Boyer said. “Why not in the rest of the world?” he asked. Because pilots there can’t afford the user fees, he said. “GA around the world has not fared well under user fees,” he emphasized.
It’s something to think about.
“There isn’t a single country in the world where this works,” agreed Alan Klapmeier, co-founder of Cirrus Design. “What they’re proposing is imposing a broken system from the rest of the world on what’s really a good system here,” he said. “What we have now is really a very simple system” for funding FAA operations, he insisted. The existing fuel tax “is virtually invisible and adds no bureaucratic burden for collection,” unlike the complicated fee collection system proposed by the airlines.
In addition, the costs would be “a disincentive to do the right thing,” discouraging pilots from filing flight plans and utilizing flight following, weather briefings and other FAA services for which fees would be imposed, Klapmeier said, and that becomes a safety issue. Similar fees in Europe “are killing general aviation,” he asserted.
Klapmeier pointed out that GA is a vital part of the nation’s economy, a fact often overlooked and one on which user fees would have serious consequences, he said. The airlines’ proposal “doesn’t modernize anything and hurts the economy by penalizing those of us who don’t add any cost to the system. It’s a bad deal,” he concluded.
The airlines are saying that user fees are a fait accompli, said Pete Bunce, president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. “They’re saying, “It’s going to happen and you guys are just going to take it.’
“We have the power to say to our legislators that this is a bad idea,” he concluded.