User Fees: The Problems, the
Positions, the Players
by Charlie Spence, Aviation Writer and IFA Member
About two-thirds of all general
aviation airplanes and pilots in the world are in the
Airlines in other nations, therefore, have airports and air traffic regulations
pretty much as they want them for their businesses. Not so in the United States.
General aviation in the
flies about 220,000 airplanes compared to approximately 19,000 by all commercial
domestic flag, supplemental, scheduled, cargo, commuter airlines, and air taxis
combined. More persons fly in general aviation than are passengers on any single
airline. General aviation is a big, competitive air carrier.
For more than 40 years various
individual or united attempts by airlines have been made to relegate general and
business aviation to a second-class position in the
as it is in the rest of the world. This is not based on disrespect for general
aviation. It is in the competition for business and to get maximum benefit from
a limited air traffic control system and a few crowded airports.
A current effort is trying to promote
user charges. A few nations of the world have established a system of user fees
that make it extremely expensive for general aviation to operate. Some airline
companies in the
have wanted this for years but the industry itself has been divided because of
the competitive positions of low-cost airlines vs. the more standard carriers.
But fuel prices and company financial conditions have changed this. Now, all
airlines in the
are united in an effort to get the federal government to establish fees for
using the air traffic control (ATC) system and airports. Will they succeed? Will
there be user fees?
The issue surfaced now because of the coming expiration of
aviation trust fund legislation. The fund was first established to provide
federal money to build and improve airports. Over the years it changed to where
today the fund provides about 80 percent of the cost for operating the FAA.
Revenue into the fund comes from a tax on airline passenger
tickets and cargo waybills, a fuel tax of 4.3 cents a gallon on jet fuel used by
the airlines, a tax of 19.3 cents a gallon on avgas used in general aviation,
and a tax of 21.8 cents a gallon on jet fuel used by general aviation. Because
the tax paid by passengers and shippers is collected by the airlines, those
companies claim airlines are paying an unfair portion of the cost of the air
traffic control system. They want non-airline users to pay what the companies
say is a "fair share."
General aviation, on the other hand, claims the ATC is
designed to needs of the airlines, that the 29 busiest airports where there is
air-traffic congestion, has little general aviation traffic, and a fuel tax is
an efficient way to collect funds compared to the bureaucracy needed for
assessing and collecting user charges. Some in general aviation point out that
the airline companies are paying very little into the aviation trust fund'a fuel
tax far lower than a corporate or business aircraft operator'with airline
customers footing the companies' contribution.
The need to renew the trust fund
legislation brought a smoldering difference between general aviation and the
airline industry to the surface. On one side is the Air Transport Association
(ATA) comprised of 19 U. S.
passenger and cargo airlines and four non-U.S. airlines. Membership also
includes industry members in related fields of aircraft and engine
manufacturers, maintenance, insurance, and other service providers.
Championing general aviation's point of view are major
associations: principally the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA)
representing companies using aircraft for business purposes, General Aviation
Manufacturers Association (GAMA), comprised of aircraft and engine
manufacturers, National Air Transportation Association (NATA), the organization
of fixed base operators, air charter operators, and repair stations, and
Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), an organization of more than
two-thirds of all pilots in the U.S.
The ATA proposal claims to be interested only in corporate jet
aircraft paying user fees. Private flyers would continue paying a fuel tax.
Promises by Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta that there
would be no user fees on "general aviation" are resulting in much confusion over
who would pay what. Some circles believe the differences are intentionally
designed to divide the opposition groups of general aviation.
Current legislative authority to collect money for the
aviation trust fund expires September 30, 2007. The battle lines have been drawn
early because of the volatility of the issue. The main battleground is in the
U.S. Congress, but skirmishes are popping up in the media, at aviation
conventions, on the Internet, and where either side believes it can gain a
toehold of support.
As the Congress goes through hearings and as the parties on all sides become
more aggressive, the subject will become more volatile. Events may alter
actions. The course of general aviation in future years may be decided in the
next few months. Keep in touch with IFA for the developments. Particularly since
9-11, many government agencies become involved in issues outside their own
arenas, so various outside agencies as well as others will influence the FAA
within the Department of Transportation. Congress, however, will have a major
say. If you want your opinions considered, you can make your voice heard by
e-mailing comments to your Senators and Representative. Most of their websites
have easy-to-use contact methods.