NBAA Convention News

Bolen hones user-fee strategy in bid to counter airline lobbying tactics

 - September 20, 2007, 6:37 AM

Airline lobbyists on Capitol Hill are playing hardball in presenting their arguments for why billions of dollars of aviation trust fund costs should be shifted onto general aviation. Air Transport Association (ATA) president James May this summer suggested that the FAA should consider temporarily limiting the activity of business jets during the 4th of July week at New York-area airports to help relieve delays. The airlines have even launched an online advertising campaign that uses class warfare to make their case.

In a YouTube video funded by ATA, for example, a corporate jet cuts in front of several airliners queued on a taxiway. “Coming through,” it says, “I’ve got a foursome here with an early tee time!” A star of the ads is airline passenger Edna, a woman who likes wearing “big wigs,” but “not subsidizing them.” A voiceover at the end of the video urges viewers to “Tell Congress you want shorter, faster flights with no passenger subsidies for corporate jets.”

NBAA president Ed Bolen bristles at suggestions that business aviation doesn’t pay its fair share or is responsible for airline delays. With the help of other GA groups and a new grassroots organization called the Alliance for Aviation Across America, business aviation is fighting back with ads of its own countering the airlines’ claims, he said.

But the fight ahead won’t be easy. Former FAA Administrator Marion Blakey came down firmly on the side of the airlines, using an agency fiscal report to justify GA user fees and tax hikes. And the expected entry into service of large numbers of very light jets will only give the FAA and airlines more ammunition. Bolen spoke with NBAA Convention News to discuss what’s being done on the front lines of the user-fee battle.

The rhetoric surrounding the user-fee fight is as heated as ever, but what’s the reality in your view?

The nation’s major airlines are spending millions of dollars trying to vilify general aviation. The ads that they began running on CNN’s airport network are now running on city buses in Washington, D.C., they’ve got advertisements online, they are publishing editorials in their in-flight magazines, and we are hearing a drum beat blaming general aviation for the delays in the system, which is, of course, completely false and misleading. The Department of Transportation has listed the five top reasons for airline delays, and general aviation is not one of them. But the airlines are trying to promote that idea and suggest that we in the business aviation community are being subsidized.

I think our response in the general aviation community has been cohesive and united. And I think the most important point is that the response has come from beyond general aviation. The Alliance for Aviation Across America is a group that is supportive of the general aviation agenda, but it is not made up just of general
aviation groups. It includes the League of Rural Voters, the Small Business Entrepreneurial Council, the National Farmers Union and the National Association for State Aviation Officials.

I think the airlines expected it to be a fight between them and the individuals and companies that rely on business aviation, but what they’re finding is it’s big airlines attacking the entire fabric of small and midsize towns all across the United States, towns that recognize that if they have any commercial service their grasp is fairly tenuous and they need other modes of transportation to effectively be part of the economy.

What about equal access to airspace? Do you view that as a threat as well?

The big airlines are trying to kick general aviation out of any airport or airspace they can. That became clear over the 4th of July holiday when ATA suggested that commercial airlines ought to be given preference. That has been reiterated more recently in comments by ATA’s Jim May. So yes, we view it as an imminent threat.

Are you encouraged, though, by what you’re hearing from certain members of Congress, who are saying the FAA ought to be funded through current mechanisms?

This battle is ultimately going to be decided by Congress. The legislative process is fluid and dynamic–and very unpredictable. I’m not sure how this is all going to play out, but I do know there have been a number of senators and representatives who have stood up for general aviation and articulated its importance to our nation’s transportation infrastructure and to our economy. We’re encouraged by that, but we also recognize that the big airlines are an enormously powerful lobby. They have a long record of working Capitol Hill and positioning themselves for bailouts and benefits. We are very concerned about having the airlines unleash their political and P.R. machines on general aviation. They’ve been attacking us for a year and half now. As I said, we’ve been gratified that it’s not just general aviation standing up to them, but a much broader community, and that includes members of Congress. But we do not underestimate the strength of the big airlines.

Listening to some of the speeches that Marion Blakey has given in the last year, its obvious which side of the argument she is on. But it also seems that she’s employing a certain amount of fuzzy math in making her case for user fees. Are you concerned by what you’re hearing from the FAA?

So much of what the FAA has been saying is based on a recent cost-allocation study that they did. Our concern about that study is nothing new. We’ve brought our concerns directly to the FAA. In conducting this cost-allocation study, the FAA has largely abandoned economic principle and developed its own cost-allocation methodology which is at odds with international standards and breaks with all of the past methodology that the FAA has used.

Even more concerning to us is that after we saw this, we asked the FAA to share the underlying data with us so we could do our own cost-allocation study. We made that first request over a year and a half ago, and they’ve not shared that information with us. We question the appropriateness of the cost-allocation study, particularly as the basis for a major policy shift in the United States because it is so far from accepted economic methodology. In order to create a new aviation policy, we think that’s something that needs to be fully vetted.

How concerned are you by arguments that business aviation is the cause of airline delays, and that the introduction of very light jets will make the situation even worse?

This is a debate that’s been going on now for two full years. The airlines made an announcement that they hoped to use this process to shift $2 billion onto the general aviation community and gain more control of the nation’s air traffic control system. That was their stated goal. Their justifications for that have changed almost daily. First it was that the trust fund wasn’t generating enough revenues, and then it was this, and then it was that, and basically at every assertion they have made, we have been able to go back and look at the empirical data and show that their talking points have no substance.

Faced with that, they then argued that all our statistics were from the past and tried to come up with a scenario for the future. And they have grasped onto the very light jets. And here again, I don’t think there is any reason to believe the statements from the airlines about VLJs. We all know that these airplanes can take off and land from runways as short as 3,000 feet, they can fly efficiently both above and below those altitudes where commercial airlines typically operate, they’ve got the latest avionics and they’ll be able to operate pretty nimbly out of various airspace. I think that very light jets represent an exciting new advance in aviation in the United States and it’s going to be good for the country. I think the airlines are looking for any excuse to try to make general aviation the bad guy, and as part of that they’re trying to make the advent of VLJs a bad thing, which I find somewhat amazing.