Despite heavy lobbying by general aviation groups, a promising effort to have the concept of user fees for ATC services stricken from the Senate’s version of an FAA reauthorization bill failed narrowly in mid-May by a 12-11 vote.
Sen. John Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate aviation subcommittee, and ranking Republican member Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) had introduced S.1300 early last month as an alternative to the Bush Administration’s reauthorization proposal released in February.
While the White House plan would more than triple GA fuel taxes–from 21.8 cents a gallon to 70 cents a gallon on jet fuel and from 19.3 cents to 70 cents per gallon on aviation gasoline–the Rockefeller-Lott proposal would raise the tax on GA jet fuel from 21.8 cents a gallon to 49 cents per gallon and impose a new user fee of $25 per segment for all turbine-powered aircraft that use the ATC system. There would be no additional tax on avgas.
On May 15, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) introduced an amendment that would have stricken the proposed language calling for a per-flight user fee as part of the committee’s “reauthorization,” or funding proposal, for the FAA. The amend- ment was defeated in a vote by the full Senate Commerce Committee.
Attesting to the closeness of the vote was an 11-11 tally before the final and deciding vote. Oddly, that vote was cast by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), whose own state last month passed a resolution opposing user fees and increases in aviation fuel taxes, as well as reduced airport funding and congressional oversight of the FAA.
The resolution noted that Alaska has historically relied heavily on general aviation as a major component of its transportation system and that the state has about one pilot and one aircraft for every 61 people.
Even before casting his tie-breaking vote, Stevens acknowledged concerns about the new fee and expressed a desire to explore the effect such a fee could have on both commercial and general aviation. He conceded there was “a bit of unfairness” in the bill, but he said he wanted to send it to the Senate floor.
NBAA and AOPA characterized the razor-thin verdict as an indication of lawmakers’ growing animus to user fees. “This remarkable vote shows that opposition to the per-flight user fee is growing among senators from both sides of the aisle, who are coming to share our concerns about this user fee,” said NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen.
He also suggested that the closeness of the vote adds momentum to the fight against user fees, and he thanked senators who opposed user fees by supporting the amendment. “We have some real champions for our cause, and we are picking up key supporters in this fight,” Bolen said.
“As disappointing as this one vote is, I still consider it a win for the long term,” said AOPA president Phil Boyer. “In Washington, it’s not always about the result but about how you play the game. In this case pilots disrupted the airlines’ attempt to have user fees pass [smoothly].”
Noting the “extraordinary outpouring of phone calls” from AOPA members, he said that three days before the vote no one would have believed that there was
the slightest chance of removing user fees from the package.
“But with the help of AOPA members, we nearly turned it around in two-and-a-half days,” said Boyer. “That sends a message to the rest of Congress, showing that there is strong support for our no-user-fee position.”
General aviation advocates remain far from disheartened, and the Senate Commerce Committee is only the first of nearly a dozen congressional bodies that will weigh in on the FAA financing issue. S.1300 now moves to the Senate Committee on Finance, which has jurisdiction over excise and fuel taxes.
Although the committee has not released a draft of the legislation, there is speculation that it will move to increase the GA jet-fuel tax to 49 cents per gallon from the current 21.8 cents per gallon and phase out the 4.3-cents-a-gallon fuel tax that the airlines pay. As of the middle of last month, the Finance Committee had not set a date for consideration of the tax portion of the FAA reauthorization bill.
Noting that S.1300 would give the airlines a tax break by replacing the commercial fuel tax with the $25-per-flight user fee on all turbine-powered aircraft flying in controlled airspace, Nelson asked, “Who do you want to pay? You have to make a choice; do you want it from the user fee or a continuation of the existing fuel tax
on commercial aviation?”
Nelson said that Florida, like Alaska, depends on GA, and his entire state is covered by controlled airspace. Therefore, every turbine aircraft flying point to point in Florida would pay the $25-per-flight fee. And he wondered if the fee was the airlines’ attempt to eliminate small competition such as Florida-based DayJet.
“We don’t need a new user fee,” said Sununu. “That’s a new system–a new
system for collection, a new system for invoicing, a new regulatory burden on general aviation.” Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) concurred, commenting that the Rockefeller-Lott bill was good overall, “But…I think a fuel tax is a far better approach.”
FAA Administrator Marion Blakey has been arguing that a new funding plan is necessary to build the next generation air traffic system (NextGen), but the Congressional Budget Office, Government Accountability Office and the Transportation Department’s inspector general have said that the current funding structure will provide the additional revenue necessary.
“The general aviation community recognizes the need for modernization of the aviation system so that it remains the world’s largest, safest and most efficient,” said Bolen. “But we also know that user fees represent a step in the wrong direction because they would be very harmful to small and midsize businesses and rural communities across the country.”
Meanwhile, the House is writing its own version of an FAA reauthorization bill, which was expected to be released before the week-long Memorial Day holiday. User fees are expected to meet turbulence in that chamber, where long-time user-fee opponent Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) runs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The aviation subcommittee has several members who are pilots who regularly fly their own planes. Aviation taxes and fees will ultimately be determined by the House Ways and Means Committee.