RAA 06 Convention Report: Interests clash as group takes pass on ATC funding

 - September 15, 2006, 7:19 AM

The relatively heavy traffic in the exhibit halls during this year’s RAA Convention in Dallas might have obscured an underlying atmosphere of anxiety if not for some uncomfortable moments during RAA chairman Jeff Pinneo’s overview of the issues discussed at the confab’s President’s Council meeting. For despite all the rhetoric about the need for industry unity, it looked as though the divide between the regional airlines and their mainline counterparts over how best to fund the nation’s ATC system had only grown more pronounced.

As usual, Pinneo and RAA president Debby McElroy could offer few details about the closed-door sessions. Asked whether the debate centered on the Air Transport Association’s endorsement of a formula that takes no account of aircraft weight, Pinneo opted to answer in generalities, maintaining that the root of the argument lies with differing definitions of the term “user.” General aviation interests such as NBAA argue that the passengers represent the ultimate users of the system, thereby justifying the current system based on ticket taxes. Major airlines insist that because controller workload does not change with the size of the airplane being shepherded through the system, any funding formula should not take into consideration the size of the airplane and, therefore, the number of passengers.

Talking of Planks

Although Pinneo did say that the ATA’s platform contained “a few planks we could stand on,” his admission that “we’ve got some work to do” left little doubt that indeed the regionals and majors do not stand united on aviation’s most pressing issue. Of course, that leaves the RAA in an extremely delicate position. During last year’s RAA convention in Cincinnati, American Eagle president Peter Bowler posited a proposal to ease the airlines’ burden for funding the system: get business aviation to pay its fair share. “Airlines fund 90 percent of the Airport and Airway Trust Fund but account for only 60 percent of the activity,” said Bowler. “Business jets in particular are getting a free ride.”

At that time, however, the issue looked clearer cut; it essentially boiled down to an argument for or against user fees. Now the RAA finds itself in a sort of no-man’s land between general aviation and the major airlines, requiring a more nuanced position. A system that takes no account of aircraft weight, such as that proposed by the ATA, would not only shift more of the cost burden to business jets, but it would especially affect high-frequency RJ and turboprop operations. The question for the RAA remains, however, how best to go about lobbying to shift more of the burden away from its constituencies without antagonizing those on which they depend for their livelihood–the major airlines.

All this leaves the RAA in one of the stickiest situations it has had to face since McElroy took the helm some six years ago. More beholden to mainline interests than ever, regionals– particularly those that haven’t spread their risk among multiple codes–walk on proverbial eggshells around their partners. With today’s glut of 50-seat jets and plenty of operators willing to operate them, the majors enjoy more choice–and leverage over the regionals– than ever before.

The RAA still hasn’t issued an official position on the matter, nor will it until the FAA and the Bush Administration finally go public with their proposals, according to McElroy. Meanwhile, the association must do its level best to find common ground on which its own members can all comfortably stand on the matter.

Of course, with an airline membership ranging in size from a major-airline-category member such as SkyWest to piston-powered Part 135 small package carriers, the RAA must often represent widely divergent interests. Larger members, whose fee-per-departure code-share contracts guarantee a given profit margin, might see the ATA’s funding proposal in a completely different light from a 19-seat turboprop operator that depends solely on pro-rate proceeds.

Whatever position it eventually takes, the RAA can bet that not everyone will come away fully satisfied. It can, however, promise to represent each of its members’ interests with the same level of zeal, regardless of its size. “What the [RAA] board has agreed is that whatever system is developed cannot disproportionately increase regional airline cost or disadvantage small community air service,” said McElroy.

If the RAA meets that goal, she should get no complaints.