User-fee supporter takes key Senate post

 - January 29, 2009, 4:14 AM

When 91-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) relinquished his chairmanship of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee late last year, the domino effect thrust Sen. John Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) into the chairmanship of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Byrd agreed to step down from Appropriations because of his failing health, triggering musical chairs in the Senate hierarchy. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), 84, who had been chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, replaced Byrd on Appropriations.

That cleared the way for Rockefeller, 71, to take over the Commerce Committee. And how that affects general aviation could be problematic, as the senator has crusaded to force business aviation to pay more taxes into the Airport and Airways Trust Fund, which currently provides the bulk of the FAA’s funding stream.

Rockefeller, who formerly chaired the Senate aviation subcommittee, was a co-author of S.1300, the upper chamber’s version of an FAA reauthorization bill that was introduced in early May 2007. While it raised the tax on GA jet fuel from 21.8 cents a gallon to 49 cents per gallon, the most unpalatable provision for GA interests was a new user fee of $25 per flight segment for all turbine-powered aircraft that use the ATC system.

Rockefeller and co-author then- Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) made it clear they wanted business aircraft to pay more toward ATC modernization. “I don’t want to create a system where airline passengers subsidize corporate jets,” Rockefeller said at the time. He argued that corporate jets use ATC services but their operators don’t want to pay for them.

Rockefeller threatened to “look for ways to limit general aviation access to congested airspace” unless corporate aircraft are required to pay more than they currently do. He added that once corporate executives are made to sit on the tarmac at airports such as Teterboro, they might change their thinking.

Lott, who left the Senate at the end of 2007, added, “This time we are going to have a fair bill or no bill.” That statement proved prescient, as the Senate never passed S.1300, even though the $25-per-segment was later dropped.

But Rockefeller has not been totally unsupportive of general aviation. He was one of the backers of the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1993 and was instrumental in attracting what were then Sino Swearingen Aircraft and the now-bankrupt Tiger Aircraft to locate manufacturing facilities in Martinsburg, W.Va. He is also a proponent of NextGen.