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User Fee Battle Starts Its Way Through Congress

The first Congressional step in the contentious user fee battle between general aviation on one side and the airlines and the FAA on the other fell in favor of the government and airlines when the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation approved a $25 'service fee' by the slim margin of one vote. As approved, the fee would apply to all commercial and most turbine- and turboprop powered general aviation flights.

During discussion of the legislation, which will fund the FAA through 2011, the committee narrowly defeated an amendment to strike the provision for that fee. Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL) and John Sununu (R-NH) offered the amendment. It lost by a 12 to 11 vote, with the deciding ballot coming from vice- chairman of the committee, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK).

Stevens' vote surprised many in general aviation, expecting the Alaskan to support the opposition. Stevens's proposal, however, secured exemptions for airmen in Alaska and for certain airline operations in that state. He said in a written statement that he is concerned that the legislation as originally drafted 'places an undue burden on too many small carriers in rural parts of America, including Alaska.' He stated he wants to further consider the impact the fee would have on commercial and general aviation.

With approval from the committee on transportation, the next step takes the bill to the committee on finance, which has jurisdiction over excise and fuel taxes. At this report, no date has been set for that committee to take up the issue.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House has not released its proposals on the legislation. It is expected that the no user fee approach will get a better hearing here. Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has frequently declared his opposition to any kind of fees.

Once the House bill is introduced it will go through the same procedure as the Senate's version and then both will go to conference where a final bill will be hammered out. Time for this is short. FAA reauthorization must be completed before September 30. Congress is schedule for its summer recess August 6 to September 3. If significant differences cannot be resolved before the present authorization expires, it might be necessary to provide supplemental funding.

General aviation got a boost from the Government Accountability Office, which contradicted a claim by the FAA that the trust fund would not finance, the next generation (NexGen) air traffic control system. Questioned about this earlier this year by the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, Dr. Gerald Dillingham responded with a letter in May that the aviation trust fund structure can provide sufficient funding for NexGen if current taxes remain in force and the federal government continues to provide 19 percent of the FAA's budget. Dillingham is director of GAO's Physical Infrastructure Issues.

Lobbying is getting more intense with general aviation groups calling on members to contact key lawmakers and the Air Transport Association is getting more aggressive with news story planting and an animated feature for television release and terminal TV screens. These efforts have kept general aviation groups on the defensive.

James May, president of the Air Transport Association and Phil Boyer, president of Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association debated the issue at an Aero Club of Washington luncheon. In the discussion, May declared 'I don't have any grief with Phil at all,' adding that the airlines' beef is with corporate jets. This, however, failed to placate Boyer who expresses concern that once any user fee is established it is a 'slippery slope' for setting other fees as in other nations.

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