No consensus on user fees, FAA awaits new funding

 - February 5, 2008, 11:19 AM

With the 110th Congress back in Washington for its second session, the general aviation community was girding last month to continue its opposition to user fees to fund the FAA.

The House of Representatives has already passed a four-year FAA reauthorization (funding) bill, but the Senate has not. Through much of the fall, three Senate committees with jurisdiction over the measure–Finance; Appropriations; and Commerce, Science and Transportation–bickered over various provisions.

In December, the Appropriations and Finance committees removed one of the hurdles to passage. According to a December 11 letter from the Finance Committee to the Appropriations Committee, Finance agreed to drop a provision that would create a separate account for new revenue dedicated to modernizing the ATC system.

The Finance measure would have made depositing the money into the account mandatory, sending it directly to the FAA to spend and bypassing the appropriations process.

But the Finance Committee is still fighting with the Commerce Committee about user fees. The Senate FAA reauthorization bill (S.1300)–drafted by the Commerce Committee–would require general aviation, in particular business aircraft, to pay a new $25-per-flight surcharge on all jet and most turboprop aircraft operations.

The Finance Committee’s draft (S.2345) would raise the jet fuel tax to 36 cents per gallon, with no additional charges for aviation gasoline or commercial fuel taxes. But it does not contain the $25 charge. Without that fee, the Senate FAA reauthorization bill would more closely mirror that of the House.

In an address to an AOPA Pilot Town Meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last month, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said that in his opinion, “User fees are dead.” He said the Senate is working hard to reach final agreement on the issue of FAA funding.

He reminded pilots that he had coauthored an amendment to strip user fees from S.1300. Although it failed by one vote, Nelson said it “signaled that user fees are dead and it signaled that they are going to be out of the final reauthorization bill. When this bill gets to the floor, I don’t expect that I’ll have to offer the amendment again.”

While the debate over the $25 turbine user fee stalled the Senate measure, on December 20 President Bush signed a $14.6 billion FAA appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2008 as part of the omnibus funding bill for all federal agencies. In essence, it extends the FAA’s existing funding and tax structure through the end of this month.

“While it’s encouraging to hear Senator Nelson’s assessment, in politics it isn’t over until the final vote,” said AOPA president Phil Boyer. “The airlines haven’t given up on user fees and more taxes on general aviation, and you can bet their lobbyists will be buttonholing senators as soon as they’re back in Washington.”