House, Senate locked on FAA bill; GA user fees loom

 - July 26, 2011, 5:58 AM

When three Republican members of the House of Representatives introduced a 21st extension of FAA programs and funding containing a policy provision that cuts Essential Air Service (EAS) passenger subsidies to 13 airports, it set off a firestorm in Congress and inside the Beltway. Probably passengers who use the affected airports were not too happy either.

Amidst trading accusations over the EAS cuts, the House passed the extension mostly along party lines on July 20. That dragged Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt into the fray.

“Congress needs to stop playing games, work out its differences, and pass a clean FAA bill immediately,” said LaHood. “There is no excuse for not getting this done. Important programs and construction projects are at stake. This stalemate must be resolved.”

Babbitt added, “We are going to be forced to furlough valuable FAA employees unless this situation is resolved quickly.”

User-Fee Fears

Meanwhile, as debate raged over raising the nation’s debt ceiling and reducing the deficit, general aviation organizations warned their members that the horse-trading going on between Congress and the White House could lead to a resurrection of GA user fees.

On July 19, seven general aviation groups sent a letter to all members of Congress urging them to drop a proposal to charge a $25 “departure fee” on airline and GA flights. “Our community is deeply concerned about reports suggesting that current negotiations to raise the debt ceiling are giving rise to a resoundingly discredited approach to raising revenues from our industry–user fees,” the presidents of the associations wrote.

“Bad ideas, like bad pennies, have a habit of turning up again and again in Washington,” said AOPA president and CEO Craig Fuller. “Now is not the time to revisit the bad idea of user fees,” echoed Helicopter Association International president Matt Zuccaro.

The associations said the entire general aviation industry believes that the current fuel excise tax system is the most efficient and effective way for GA to contribute to the aviation trust fund. On the other hand, business aviation leaders emphasize, experience elsewhere in the world demonstrates that user fees cripple general aviation, doing irreparable harm to a vital economic driver.

Once the House passed the extension, it was sent to the Senate. “This extension adopts unanimously passed Senate language and stops three airports from receiving passenger ticket subsidies in excess of $1,000,” said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “Every ticket at Ely, Nev., airport is underwritten $3,720 by federal taxpayers.”

He said it is now up to the Senate to pass this bill and not shut down FAA programs “over a little provision that eliminates huge government subsidies to just three small airports.” What he failed to mention was that two of the three airports are in the home states of two of the most influential Democrats in Congress, including Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Sen. Jay Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said he was disappointed that the House “tried to jam the Senate” on the FAA extension. “Since the House tried to gain leverage in the negotiations by striking [a] symbolic amount of EAS funding,” he said, “the Senate will ignore that trick and move forward with trying to pass a clean funding extension.”

Rockefeller declared the Senate will never pass a bill containing the EAS clause. “The House set a terrible precedent for bipartisanship, for the conference process and for the spirit of compromise,” he said. “Our goal is solutions, not stunts.”