WASHINGTON, D.C. — Opening salvos in the FAA reauthorization/user fee battle were fired March 8 in the Senate Aviation Subcommittee and it quickly became clear the coming months will see aggressive actions by all sides in the controversy.
This first hearing brought out the expected supporters and opponents of the administration’s proposals, plus a few who had not before entered the fray. Committee members chose to open the legislative process by hearing from only one witness from each of several segments of aviation. Charles (Chip) Barkley, president of the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE), spoke on behalf of airport operators; James May, president of the Air Transport Association (ATA), gave the airlines’ point of view; cargo lines were represented by Stephen Alterman, president of the Cargo Airline Association (ACA); Pat Forrey, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), spoke for that group; and Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), carried the ball for general aviation users.
Opening statements by senators revealed opposing opinions held by some and open-mindedness by others. Although not a member of the subcommittee, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) made a lengthy statement as a witness extolling the benefits of general aviation, urging his colleagues to “”take the idea of user fees off the table.”” A commercial instrument-rated pilot who has flown around the world in a Cessna 414 recreating the route flown by Wiley Post, Inhofe said he “”seriously questions”” the administration’s cost accounting study. He warned his fellow senators that a fee structure would have “”dramatic and immediate negative effects on general aviation”” and that Congress would lose its oversight of the FAA.
Ranking member of the full committee, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), stated he is “”not convinced the entire system needs revamping.”” He added the toughest job the Senate faces is its reaction to the proposed fee structure, which he said is extremely controversial in Alaska where more than 70% of the communities can be reached only by air.
The funding proposal is “”being assaulted and attacked by everybody,”” Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chair of the subcommittee, commented, rhetorically asking: “”are there areas where we can reach accommodation with each other?””
Meanwhile, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), subcommittee ranking member, warned witnesses that “”every one of you will have to pay more, do more and give more.””
May continued to tout the airlines’ support for user fees, calling them a first step, but adding that more needs to be done.
Airports need more money, Barkley told the committee. He said inflation and construction costs have airport managers dismayed over the administration’s proposal for airport aid in fiscal years 2008 to 2010. Even the highest amount proposed over the next three fiscal years would be $150 million less than Congress appropriated six years ago, he said.
The air cargo industry uses the system more heavily at night off-peak hours when passenger flights are less frequent, Alterman reminded the lawmakers. Therefore, he concluded, cargo flights do not put a strain on the system and should not pay the same amounts as the passenger flights that cause the congestion. He said the industry could not support a new structure that gives the FAA virtually unfettered authority to set the level and structure of fees at will with little or no Congressional oversight.
NBAA’s Bolen pounded away at the point that a fee structure would reduce Congressional control over the FAA. He cited a press conference called by the ATA at which The Wall Street Journal quoted the airlines’ chief lobbyist as saying: “”We need to get Congress out of this process.”” He challenged the FAA’s contention that any fee structure would build a new system. The first year, he said, a fee structure would result in a $600 million decrease in revenue and divert money that can be used for runways, towers, and technology to an expensive bureaucratic collection system.
Although not invited to appear at the hearing, an airline passenger group nevertheless wrote to the subcommittee with the airlines’ standard position. David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, wrote to the subcommittee that “”corporate executives, entertainers, real estate moguls and other fat cats have been getting a free ride from airline passengers for over 25 years and this must stop.””
More hearings and intensive lobbying will come in the months before the present authorization expires in September. The House had scheduled hearings for later in the month where stronger opposition to the user fee proposal is expected to surface.
Charles Spence is GAN’s Washington, D.C., correspondent.