NBAA Convention News

Arnie takes a swing at plans for user fees

 - November 14, 2006, 7:29 AM

Golfing legend Arnold Palmer took a shot at the airlines’ proposal to institute a user fee system to fund the nation’s air traffic system during the convention’s opening general session Tuesday morning, calling any such scheme potentially “devastating” to the industry. “I just flew back from Ireland and flew over a corner of Canada, and in about a month I’ll get a bill for it,” said Palmer. “Thanks to the creation of the aviation trust fund 36 years ago, we’ve been very fortunate in this country to have the very best air transportation system in the world…I have to ask why in the world would we want to change a structure that works so well?”

Palmer wouldn’t get much of an argument from the crowd on hand at yesterday’s packed opening session, where NBAA president Ed Bolen reported a 14-percent increase in attendance over last year’s event and a completely sold out convention hall. Of course, Bolen also issued a warning about user fees. “It’s clearly a proposal that’s designed to have the airlines pay less and control more of our air traffic system,” remarked Bolen.   

On hand to give a first-hand account of the value business aviation brings to his enterprise and the U.S. economy at large, the chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and group president of Caterpillar Inc. Gerald Shaheen reported that his company is considering starting its own air taxi service with VLJs to transport employees from various regional offices.

“Our business aviation program for executive officers has been such a success that we are now considering, through a Six Sigma methodology, to extend the use of Caterpillar’s corporate jets to our regional business travelers as well,” said Shaheen. “Last year over 3,200 employees in the Peoria area alone took automobiles or flew commercially on regional business trips involving an overnight stay. We may soon begin to provide these employees with an air taxi service to destinations ranging from two to seven hundred miles away…If it works out, it will simply be good business.”

Of course, good business will also depend on a properly funded and modernized air transportation system, and FAA Administrator Marion Blakey next took the podium to impress upon everyone the importance of preparing for the future right now, along with a thinly veiled reminder that the funding system as it stands today cannot continue in its current form. “Changes in ticket prices affect our income and they have nothing to do with the cost to operate,” she said. “Similarly, other aspects of the current excise tax formula are not aligned with the cost of the aviation system.”

As expected, Blakey did not elaborate on what she thought should replace the system in use today, but stressed that “it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to plan for long-term capital investments…I don’t think I need to talk to businessmen in this room about what kind of chaos that creates.”