User-fee fight is different this time

 - October 24, 2006, 12:01 PM

Business aviation interests have been victorious in their battles over the years to prevent the creation of general aviation user fees to replace the current fuel tax to pay for their share of ATC services. But at last month’s NBAA Convention business aviation trade group leaders warned that this time the battle is different and could be the toughest yet.

In past battles, the quarrel over user fees was between the then-new low-cost airlines and the legacy carriers. Business aviation was basically ignored. Now, however, the airlines are acting as one and suggest they are paying 90 percent of the costs while using the airspace 70 percent of the time. The FAA and the Bush Administration apparently support user fees as well. The FAA wants a fee-based system instead of one based on taxes, and the Bush Administration wants to demonstrate its support for the airlines while making a show of reducing taxes.

NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen said that the airlines are advocating a system in which all aircraft pay the same fee regardless of size, meaning a single-engine turboprop and a 555-passenger Airbus A380 will pay the same amount.

As illogical as that might sound, Bolen noted, “That idea is gaining some traction [in Washington, D.C.].” The current proposal for user fees has more widespread backing from the airlines, he said, and they “view us as their competition, claiming that their first-class passengers have abandoned them for business aviation.”

On February 28 next year, the FAA plans to send its proposed reauthorization legislation to Congress and it will likely include a proposal for user fees. The FAA’s current four-year authorization expires on Sept. 30, 2007.

Coincidentally, the 10-year authorization for aviation excise taxes, which fund the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, expires on the same date. FAA officials see this as “a unique opportunity” to revise the way the aviation system is funded in the future. The bottom line? If approved, user fees could go into effect on that date.

While Bolen pledged that NBAA and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association would continue to keep fighting in Washington for business aviation, he added, “We need strong grassroots participation from everyone involved in business aviation.”