NBAA forum highlights user-fee fight

 - September 14, 2006, 6:29 AM

With airlines complaining to Congress about the huge amount of money they pay to the FAA, what often gets lost in the noise is the fact that the airlines themselves do not fork over the money. Rather, it is the passengers who pay the ticket taxes of 7.5 percent, which the airlines turn over to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which in turn provides most of the money to run the FAA.

In addition, it is a little publicized fact that the airlines can earn interest on the money they collect until they have to remit it to the federal government.

The airlines have proposed placing a tax on the number of “departures” and “time in system” and creating a structure that would give them the most influence among ATC stakeholders. They argue that they are paying 90 percent of the FAA’s costs while using airspace only 70 percent of the time. They further contend that business aviation does not pay its fair share.

To counter that, at last month’s NBAA Washington, D.C., Regional Forum association president and CEO Ed Bolen extracted a promise from attendees that they would send e-mails opposing user fees to their respective senators and representatives. To facilitate that process, NBAA had computers available at the forum, held at Landmark Aviation at Washington Dulles International Airport.

Emphasizing the importance of each attendee writing to their legislators and convincing three others to do the same, Bolen said that NBAA’s 65 employees in Washington are not going to win the battle alone.

“What motivates [the people on] Capitol Hill is when they feel the grassroots of an issue coming up in their district, when they get phone calls from home, when they hear about things at town hall meetings, when their mailbox becomes full,” he said.

Bolen said NBAA has been trying for the past year-and-a-half to inform members about how they can affect the outcome of the user-fee debate. He asserted that sheer numbers do matter.

“A lot of people don’t want to acknowledge that,” he said. “They like to say that maybe the CEO has to talk to someone–we’ll just sit back and wait for the CEO to take care of it. Well, it’s your job that’s at risk; it’s our industry that’s at risk. I don’t think we can wait for somebody else to do that.”

A National Debate

Bolen noted that discretion has been an essential part of how business aviation operates. The attitude has been don’t make a big deal about the airplane, just operate quietly and no one knows you are there. “Well guess what, they know we’re here,” he declared. “We’ve got a bull’s eye right on our forehead; they are coming after us.”

As one example, on June 1 The Wall Street Journal headlined a front-page article: “Collision Course–Why Big Airlines Are Starting a Fight with Business Jets.” Author Laura Meckler wrote that airlines normally try to foster good relations with well heeled business travelers, but this time they are “picking a fight with some of the most elite fliers in sky” over user fees.

“Business jets present more than 18 percent of all flights, but pay just 5 percent of those FAA fees,” she wrote. “Infuriated airlines, which represent some two-thirds of flights but pay more than 90 percent of the fees, have long complained they are overpaying. Now they’ve launched a high-stakes lobbying battle to get business jets to shoulder a bigger share of the cost of today’s [ATC] system and of an advanced, satellite-based system planned for the near future.”

Bolen said the airlines want to shift $2 billion in taxes to the business aviation community and would like to see business aviation’s access to airspace reduced.

More than 800 people attended the regional forum, which included about 25 aircraft on static display, such as mockups of the new Gulfstream G150 and the Embraer Phenom 100 very light jet, and more than 50 exhibitors set up inside Landmark’s hangars.

Informational sessions were held on procedural intentional non-compliance and how it affects a company’s safety culture, the contracting process when purchasing an aircraft and legal issues related to aircraft ownership.

The next regional forum will be in Long Beach, Calif., on November 16.