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Congress Tackles User Fee Proposal

by Charlie Spence, Aviation Writer and IFA Member

Congress is being pressured from both sides of the user fee issue while it is working to reauthorize the Federal Administration, which must be completed by September 30, or extended by a temporary reauthorization. User fees have been endorsed by many scheduled airlines for several decades. What makes this time different is that all airlines are on board and the administration is pushing the idea through its 2008 fiscal budget.

The user fee proposal calls for elimination of the domestic airline ticket tax, the international arrival and departure tax, the frequent flyer tax, and the cargo shipment tax. In their place jet fuel for the airlines would increase from its present 4.3 cents per gallon to 13.6 cents per gallon; tax on jet fuel used by general aviation would jump from 21.8 cents per gallon to 70 cents per gallon. Tax on aviation gasoline for general aviation would jump from 19.3 cents per gallon to 70 cents per gallon. A fee, to be set by the FAA, would be charged to all but general aviation piston airplanes for use of the air traffic control system. Fees would be charged for takeoffs and landings at some 200 airports. The FAA could also charge a fee for use of Class B airspace around any airport it might consider congested. Fees would also be charged for issuance of certificates: issuing or replacing an airman's certificate $50; registering an aircraft $130; issuing medical certificate $42; providing legal title opinions $100.

Both houses of Congress have held their first hearings on the subject. FAA Administrator Marion Blakey stands firm on the position that the fee structure would be more fair to airline passengers and that the agency needs additional money to complete the next generation of air traffic control. Opponents continue to stress that the proposed system would result in a reduced income ranging from $600 million in the first year to $900 million three years later. They also point out that their uses are different.

The general aviation community is together on the opposition and is joined and supported by others. The air cargo group points out that their use of the ATC is mostly at night and off-peak times, thus not causing the same congestion as do the air carriers who bunch their flights at hub airports. State aviation officials declare their opposition to 'any user fees' on general aviation.

Many members of Congress have also expressed their dislike for the user fee system. One of the most vocal has been Sen. James Inhofe (R-Ok), a long-time pilot. Although not on the committee considering the issue, he appeared before his colleagues urging them to 'take the idea of user fees off the table.' Both the chairperson and ranking minority member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee have expressed their doubts.

Over on the House side, members are even more outspoken questioning the wisdom of moving away from the present tax system to a user fee plan. Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), chair of the full Transportation and Infrastructure Committee questions 'the wisdom of giving the FAA full authority to link its proposed new user fees to its costs.'

Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL), who chairs the subcommittee first considering the issue, declares 'grave reservations' about the plan.

Heads of the various airline, general aviation, travel groups, and others caught up in the conflict are appearing before the various committees. Strong lobbying is also the rule of the day by both sides.

User fees are not taxes; therefore do not have to be approved by the Congress. What that body can do, however, is include language in the reauthorization bill prohibiting the FAA from establishing them.

This effort by the airlines has been going on for several decades. If it is beaten back again, there is no question that it will be brought up again and the airlines will seek other ways to give them priority in the air traffic control system and at major airports.

To make your opinions known to members of Congress, contact the Senators from your state and the Representative from your district. Since 9-11, all mail going into the Capitol Building is inspected, which means letters often are delayed for long periods before being delivered. To get your message heard quickly, send it by e-mail. If you are not certain of the names or e-mail addresses, check the web sites. For the Senate, go to http://www.senate.gov/, check the word 'senators' at the top left. Then choose your state. For your Representative, go to http://www.house.gov/, click 'find your Representative.'

Help Fight User Fees- Keep Aviation Flying