ATA cranks up rhetoric against business aviation

 - July 7, 2008, 8:10 AM

As the debate about FAA reauthorization and funding drags on, the lobbying group representing the major airlines continues to blame general aviation for clogging the airways and causing congestion on the ground.

After the Senate failed to pass legislation in May, the Air Transport Association (ATA) cranked up its propaganda machine with an e-mail that claimed the overwhelming majority of jets in the skies over Kentucky during the Derby events earlier that month were private jets.

“Many of us watched the winner’s circle celebrations on television while others flew on luxurious private jets to watch in person,” the e-mail said. “Did you know that airline passengers were subsidizing these posh trips to the race?”

Nonsense, said NBAA. “The ATA’s suggestion that GA air traffic at a well planned weekend event in a single location was somehow problematic is simply laughable,” said NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen. “The fact is, delays are caused by the airlines over-scheduling flights 365 days a year at big-city airports all across the country.”

He said a Transportation Department official recently provided a clear example of the airlines’ over-scheduling practices to Congress by pointing to one airline that scheduled “56 departures in a 15-minute window at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, about three times the number of airplanes that the airport has the capacity to handle.”

The ATA said in its e-mail that the airlines and their passengers paid more than 90 percent of the costs of running the ATC system but accounted for only 66 percent of system operations. “Business jets, however, underpaid for the air traffic control services they used by nearly $1 billion,” the airlines said.

According to the ATA, private jet owners have lobbied hard to protect their tax advantages. “The recreational piston-engine (or ‘general aviation’) community has been ginned up by the jetsetters to oppose the small fees proposed, even though those fees would not be imposed on piston aircraft under any proposal Congress is considering,” ATA argued.

The airline association contends that business-jet users spend a small fortune flying their lavish jets to Kentucky, buying expensive tickets to the Derby and attending swanky Derby parties but protest that they cannot pay a $25 fee to help modernize the U.S. ATC system.

Bolen said it is disingenuous for the airlines to suggest that general aviation won’t contribute to aviation system modernization, when the GA community supports legislation that contains a 65-percent fuel tax increase on GA to help fund the FAA and transform the aviation system.

Meanwhile, AOPA responded “quickly and forcefully” to a Chicago Tribune editorial that the association said read like something the airlines themselves might have written. The editorial advocated that the nation’s ATC system be privatized and funded with user fees.

In a May 29 letter to the editor, AOPA president Phil Boyer wrote, “The Chicago Tribune’s proposed cure for what ails the nation’s air transportation system will instead probably kill one of the patients.”

The debate shows no signs of ending anytime soon as few expect any legislative resolution before next year. After a surprise compromise in the Senate that would create no new user fees, lobbyists thought the Senate version of FAA reauthorization was on its way to quick passage. When an attempt to close off debate failed, the proposal was pulled from the Senate floor and put on indefinite hold.

Congress has extended aviation funding and taxes four times since it initially expired at the end of September 2007, and with one ending June 30, most Capitol Hill observers expected another long-term extension that would last at least until the new Congress and President take office in January.