Candidates’ Plans for Bizav Remain Hazy

 - October 9, 2008, 7:27 AM

When the new president takes office in January, among the myriad issues to be addressed will be the concerns of the aviation community. Certain to top the pile are FAA reauthorization, air traffic control modernization and selection of a new FAA Administrator.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who took office in January 2005, has little track record on aerospace and defense issues. The junior senator from Illinois has sided with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association in its long-running dispute with the FAA about controller pay and working conditions. In the summer of 2006, after nine months of negotiations, the FAA unilaterally imposed the contract, despite the union’s objections. Obama has introduced a bill to change the process for resolving impasses.

Although the Aerospace Industries Association has described transforming the air transportation system as “a national priority,” at this stage of the campaign neither candidate has outlined positions on aviation issues. However, when an FAA computer glitch snarled air travel in August, both candidates said they supported updating the ATC system.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has listed FedEx founder and CEO Frederick Smith; John Chambers, chairman and CEO of Cisco; and Meg Whitman, former eBay CEO, as advisors on aerospace, aviation and technology. Obama has no such separate list of advisors under that category.

McCain and User Fees

While Obama has no apparent track record with business aviation, McCain is well known for his support for user fees on corporate jets. In 1997, when he was chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, he backed a system of user fees and did not dismiss the concept of a government corporation to operate the ATC system.

At that time, like now, Congress was searching for an “equitable system” for user fees and funding of the aviation system. Ultimately, Congress approved a 10-year plan that relied heavily on commercial ticket taxes. That plan remains in effect while current negotiations for a new 10-year funding plan are under way.

While new FAA reauthorization and funding is pending, the tax rates from the 1997 measure have been continued through a series of funding and program extensions that began on Sept. 30, 2007, when the 1997 tax rate was to have expired.

When the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee proposed a $25-per-flight fee on general aviation jets and turboprops in May, McCain voted against an amendment to eliminate it. It was ultimately discarded during negotiations between the Senate Commerce Committee and the Finance Committee. The bill never made it to the full Senate, so Obama had no opportunity to divulge his position.

But the McCain family is not anti-GA, or so it would seem. Cindy McCain overcame her fear of campaigning in small airplanes by obtaining a private pilot’s license and flying her husband around Arizona during his earlier campaigns. In addition, the beer distributorship she heads operates a Cessna Citation Excel that her husband has used during his campaign.

According to the September issue of Popular Mechanics, McCain’s vice presidential pick is a strong supporter of general aviation–not surprising in a state that depends so heavily on private flying. Last year Alaska governor Sarah Palin signed a resolution opposing new GA user fees. Her husband, Todd, is a private pilot and owns a Piper Super Cub on floats.