Airlines take user-fee debate to the media

 - April 27, 2007, 7:51 AM

Like two punch-drunk prizefighters locked in a clinch, general aviation and the airlines continue to rain body blows on each other over the pending FAA reauthorization proposal that would shift much of the cost of funding the ATC system from airline passengers to GA operators.

In the latest round in the slugfest, stories about how airline passengers are paying for general aviation airports and the fat cats who fly private airplanes began appearing in the media last month.

It is unclear just what precipitated the spate of articles that paint GA airports as major benefactors of the taxes paid mostly by airline passengers. However, what is clear is that an Associated Press (AP) article that was picked up by several newspapers ignited a firestorm.

In the article, AP writer Bob Porterfield asserted that the federal government has “taken” billions of dollars from the taxes and fees paid by airline passengers and awarded it to small airports “used mainly by private pilots and globetrotting corporate executives.”

He wrote that an AP “review” found that some of these GA facilities used the federal dollars for enhancements such as longer runways and passenger terminals aimed at luring traffic. He further claimed that the money comes with “little oversight,” and “at the expense of an increasingly beleaguered air transportation system.”

Porterfield quoted longtime user-fee advocate Bob Poole, who runs the Reason Foundation, which describes itself as a free-market think tank. The nonprofit has touted privatization of government, and specifically ATC, for more than a quarter century. “They’re [business aircraft operators] making out like bandits,” said Poole. “It’s not only that airline passengers are paying more than their fair share, but they’re being overtaxed to give private jets a free ride.”

In response to the article, NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen sent a letter to the news outlets that ran it. “Your recent story about funding for local airports (‘Ticket taxes fund corporate jets, weekend warriors,’ April 16), appeared devoid of any understanding of business aviation, air traffic system funding or the needs of communities and towns nationwide,” he wrote.

Bolen argued that local airports serve a critical role for towns with little or no airline service, are local economic engines and that the story blatantly mischaracterizes the business aviation community, which uses general aviation aircraft for a business purpose.

“Also misrepresented was the role of the pending proposal for funding the [FAA],” he wrote. “That scheme, which is being pushed by the big airlines, would replace our ultra-efficient tax system for funding aviation needs with a schedule of fees that would favor giant hub airports over community airports.”

Bolen insisted that all Americans benefit from the nation’s airport system and added that any proposal for FAA reauthorization must protect aviation access for small towns and communities, and not disadvantage them.

Meanwhile, the airlines brought their case to Capitol Hill, blaming business aviation specifically for mounting flight delays in testimony on airline service improvements before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

“Delays of five hours or more are extremely rare, but shorter delays are plaguing the system and getting worse because of the vast increase in [the number of] corporate jets,” said Air Transport Association (ATA) president and CEO James May. “Thirty-five years ago, corporate jets were a novelty, but two-thirds of all jets today are corporate, and they are literally clogging our skies. Congress can reduce delays by authorizing a satellite-based air traffic control system that will relieve the traffic jam in our skies that frustrates thousands of passengers each day.” 

By the middle of last month, ATA had links on its home page to all of the newspapers that either carried Porterfield’s AP story or did one of their own which essentially supported the airlines’ position.

Apparently one AP reporter didn’t get the memo. AP writer Tom Murphy in the Indianapolis Star noted that pilots’ associations and airport managers say smaller airports are vital to the nation’s air transportation network and spur economic development that far exceeds the federal dollars they use.

While he wrote that critics doubt the money is being used wisely and Congress is considering revamping the tax system, he acknowledged “that worries many small airports in Indiana.”

Other U.S. newspapers joined the fray as well. Washington, D.C. newspaper The Hill published an article that said the paper had obtained an internal ATA document that indicates U.S. airlines paid about 74 percent of total contributions to the Airport and Airway Trust Fund. That is in contrast to the approximately 95 percent claimed by the ATA and the FAA. The newspaper said the higher figure “comes only after taking foreign airlines and shippers such as FedEx into account.

“Although the airlines have tremendous clout in Washington, they appear to face an uphill battle,” the daily newspaper stated. “House Transportation Committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) opposes the [Bush Administration] plan, a committee spokesman said, and bipartisan leaders of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee have also voiced skepticism.”

AOPA said that the AP national story contained some oversimplifications and inaccuracies that depicted general aviation in a bad light. “The good news is that at the local level, thanks to research conducted by AP’s own reporters, a much brighter and truer picture emerged,” the association said. “We encourage our members to write to their local media and let them know how you feel.”

AOPA and NBAA said they talked to Porterfield before his article was published, but little of what they told him made it into print. According to AOPA, AP headquarters in New York sent out an advisory to its bureaus, asking reporters to look into the issue on the local level. “What they found, for the most part, is that airport funding is desperately needed, fuel tax increases would cripple GA and hurt local economies and that GA serves a vital purpose,” AOPA said.

Grassroots Support
At about the same time, general aviation groups based in the Washington, D.C. area joined with a disparate band of mostly rural communities, organizations and volunteer pilots who provide free medical transport in the brawl over the Bush Administration’s plan to hike fuel taxes and institute a series of user fees to help fund the FAA and the NextGen air transportation system.

In a conference call with reporters, the Alliance for Aviation Across America said that the White House proposal would levy a huge tax hike “on general aviation or the businesses, organizations and farmers and ranchers that use small planes.” A central tenet of the new alliance is to preserve emergency services, disaster relief and business opportunities for small towns and rural areas.

“Community airports and the small businesses that use them are critical to our security, our mobility during national emergencies, access to medical care and to our local economies,” the group said.

Earlier last month, AOPA president Phil Boyer told the Iowa Aviation Conference in Des Moines that the FAA funding bill would be a step backward for smaller GA airports.

“The FAA’s bill would cut the Airport Improvement Program by almost one third, gutting $1 billion from the program,” he said. “It would remove the funding entitlement for the smallest GA airports, and it would reduce the federal matching amount, making it even harder for cash-strapped municipalities to come up with their share of the money for airport improvements.”