RAA 2007 special section: Cohen front and center at FAA funding debate

 - April 30, 2007, 10:12 AM

The Regional Airline Association opens the next chapter in its 32-year history this year as new association president Roger Cohen presides over his first RAA convention in Memphis. But in the five months since the group bid farewell to Debby McElroy, Cohen hasn’t enjoyed much time to acclimate to his new environs, having dived head-first into one of the most contentious debates over FAA funding the industry has ever had to face. Happily for the RAA’s 42 member airlines, 30-plus years in the airline business and countless hours spent on Capitol Hill and in various state capitols have taught the 55-year-old Cleveland native to swim with confidence among the K Street sharks.

“I inherited an established, functioning, great motivated team and institution, so the transition into the job per se has been kind of seamless,” Cohen told AIN. Once the FAA issued its proposal, however, any thoughts of an uncomplicated first year on the job would prove fleeting indeed.

“The FAA proposal…really missed the mark,” he said. “A passenger going from Minot, North Dakota to Minneapolis-St. Paul under the FAA proposal would pay 36 percent more than today. The next example they gave had someone flying from Tokyo to Los Angeles paying 16 percent less.”

Notwithstanding the implications of that example, Cohen chose to downplay any differences between the RAA’s position and that of the group that represents U.S. major airlines, the Air Transport Association. Rather, he unapologetically joined the chorus of criticism against business aviation’s position on the matter.   

“We need to split this check more evenly between the airline industry and business aviation because right now a lot of those services sure as hell look a lot like airlines to me, and without having to go through any of the [security] hoops that our passengers have to go through,” said Cohen.

He should know. For two years Cohen flew on AOPA’s jet in his capacity as that group’s vice president of regional affairs. Before then he served for 15 years as the head of state and local government affairs for the ATA, so he brings a panoramic perspective to his new duties with the RAA. “It was real nice being able to get on the AOPA jet parked outside my office and fly exactly where you’re going without anyone asking you to take off your shoes,” he said. “That’s not to say that [business jets] shouldn’t be there, but there’s been so many hurdles put up for the average passenger to get on an airline it’s become untenable.”

As the so-called “hassle factor” encourages more people with the means to do so to fly privately, the burden placed on the nation’s air traffic control system has only heightened, argue the airlines. Airlines say they contribute 94 percent of Aviation Trust Fund revenues but account for only 73 percent of the cost, according to a new FAA cost allocation study. Business aviation interests counter that their constituencies by and large use secondary airports and contribute little to congestion at hubs. Cohen begs to differ.

“[Under its proposal, the FAA] would charge a regional jet penalties for flying, for example, from Allentown to Newark, because it would be in the Newark airspace,” he said. “But yet a jet [flying] from Teterboro to Boca Raton wouldn’t have to pay that penalty even though it’s using the same airspace. And that’s supposed to be trying to eliminate delays? I must be missing something.”

In fact, on an average day Teterboro Airport sees 238 IFR operations while Newark’s largest tenant–Continental Airlines–operates 301 from that airport. But, the FAA’s proposal to impose premium fees at hub airports during peak periods would not touch Teterboro’s users, while regional airlines face the prospect of amortizing the fees across fleets of 19, 32, 50 and 70-seat aircraft.

Many of the same towns and cities such a plan would threaten with loss of regional air service also face Bush Administration efforts to end the Small Community Air Service Development program and cut the Essential Air Service program in half, a prospect the RAA calls devastating for businesses and residents in those enclaves.

“Our top priority in the long term is to get decision makers to recognize just how important regional airlines have become,” stressed Cohen. “Seventy percent of those communities we serve depend on us.”

The answer to hub congestion, according to Cohen, lies not with the fundamentally unfair practice of trying to manage demand through pricing schemes, but with capacity expansion. The money exists under today’s system for building runways, said Cohen; an increase in the cap on passenger facility charges won’t create the political will needed to push for airport expansion. Crowded hubs need more runways, not more terminal shopping malls, he emphasized, and the relative lack of influence the airlines continue to hold over the use of PFC funds will only result in more of the same of what they consider frivolous spending. Unfortunately for the airlines, the FAA’s proposal does nothing to address that problem, said Cohen, but in effect exacerbates it by diminishing their role in the spending consultation process.

Although Cohen could find little to praise about the plan, one of the features against which the major airline lobby has objected vigorously might actually benefit regional airlines, particularly those that fly the smallest airplane types. Namely, under the proposal, the agency would take into account the weight of an airplane when determining user fees. Calling that feature “an enormous concern,” the ATA argues that considering weight in its funding formula would weaken the tie between cost and system use and conflict with the object of the entire exercise.

Cohen too, in his March 21 testimony before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee, said he would oppose “any proposal which treats commercial airline passengers differently based on size or type of aircraft, airports utilized, or the level of air traffic during specific time periods, or discriminates against passengers from smaller markets.” Congestion pricing would do just that, argues the RAA, by discouraging the use of smaller aircraft. However, a fee system using a weight-based formula would also discriminate–against larger airplanes. So therein lies an irreconcilable conflict–even though it might seem to benefit airlines that fly lighter airplanes, to advocate a weight-based system would violate the very principle outlined by Cohen in his testimony.

Although few seem to want to talk about it, such unavoidable divergence of interests between the major airlines and their regional counterparts continues to color the uneasy alliance between the two sectors. But as one might expect, Cohen preferred to stress the similarities.  

“Our positions have a lot more in common than they do differences,” insisted Cohen. “While we agree in principle with a lot of the rationale for looking at shifting to user fees, we have no philosophical bent toward user fees...A lot of good people at the FAA put in an incredible amount of work in trying to come up with something that they thought would address the concerns of all of the stakeholders. I’m wondering what could have come out that could have been worse.”