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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 United States. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

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