Alphabet groups ready to wage user-fee battle

 - September 20, 2006, 7:00 AM

The battle lines over FAA funding have been drawn, with general aviation on one side and the airlines on the other. The dueling began in earnest on March 8, with press conferences from both the Air Transport Association (ATA) and several GA groups.

ATA fired the opening salvo with its “Smart Skies” campaign, which would in effect give it more say about how the nation’s ATC system is run. The plan would place a tax on the number of “departures” and “time in system” and give the airlines the most influence among ATC system stakeholders.

The airlines 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.

What the airlines would have everyone ignore is that it is not them but their passengers who fork over the 7.5-percent passenger ticket tax, which last year amounted to about $7.1 billion of the $10.4 billion paid into the Airport and Airway Trust Fund. The airlines themselves pay less in aviation fuel taxes than all of general aviation combined.

Within hours of the ATA media briefing, the leaders of three GA lobbying groups counterattacked with a telephone press conference. They called for GA to continue to pay for FAA services through the current fuel-tax system. NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen said that if GA must pay a larger proportion of the cost of operating, maintaining and modernizing the National Airspace System it should be through an increase in fuel taxes.

AOPA–which was not part of the teleconference–said the ATA proposal for funding the FAA is the airlines’ attempt to grab control of the ATC system and shift costs to other users. “And it is more than ironic that a chronically bankrupt industry that has mismanaged its affairs to the point that it can’t even pay full employee pensions is now telling Congress what it ‘must’ do to run the FAA as a business,” said AOPA president Phil Boyer.

National Air Transportation Association president Jim Coyne said that some members of Congress don’t want to turn control of the ATC system over to an airline cartel and then face the political consequences of that in the future “when the public gets subjected to the typical treatment that cartels have always given their customers.”

The 19 ATA member airlines that endorsed the “Smart Skies” plan called on Congress to determine and impose a specific schedule of mandatory user charges– directly and proportionally linking system use with system costs–which are fair, equitable and simple. Any new funding method established must be fair and based on reasonable indicia of use of the aviation system, as obtained from a credible, reliable and transparent FAA cost accounting system, the airline group said.

General Aviation Manufacturers Association president and CEO Pete Bunce said, “You could end up having a user-fee system imposed and still end up with fuel taxes and ticket taxes and everything else.”

The taxes that currently replenish the aviation trust fund are set to expire on September 30 next year. Although not released publicly, a new system of taxes/ user fees has been put together by the FAA and is currently under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). It is expected to go to Congress imminently.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said that the Bush Administration is aware of general aviation’s sensitivity “to what they would refer to as user fees” and cognizant of GA’s concerns.

“I don’t think they expect a free pass nor are [we] going to dump the whole boatload on them,” he said. “I don’t think that we can say right now that it will be devoid of user fees. On the other hand, they are paying right now, in effect.”

Mineta, a strong supporter of GA since his days in Congress, set off a firestorm in testimony before the House appropriations subcommittee on transportation on March 7. In response to Rep. Todd Tiahrt’s (R-Kan.) question, “Are you considering user fees on general aviation to fund the air traffic control system?” Mineta answered emphatically, “No. I’ve said this to AOPA at their annual convention…there would not be any user fees.” But that immediately raised questions about whether he was referring to all of general aviation, including business jets, or just piston-engine aircraft.

“I’ve seen the press stories, as has everybody else,” Mineta told the lawmakers. “If they are talking about user fees on general aviation, they don’t know what they’re talking about. [What] is before [the] OMB has no user fees imposed on general aviation.”

But Reuters news service later quoted “an agency official” as saying Mineta’s general aviation comments “basically covered recreational pilots.”