User Fees: GA Wedge Issue?

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Are the various proposals calling for new user fees to be imposed on some types of general aviation operations -- turbine aircraft, for instance, but not piston-powered ones -- designed to weaken opposition to them from among the non-scheduled portion of the aviation industry? Is all of this designed to drive a wedge between certain classes of GA operators and make it easier for user-fee proponents to achieve their objectives? Putting aside for the moment the arguments for and against user fees, is this all part of some Machiavellian scheme to further dilute whatever political and policy influence GA has at the federal level? That's what some observers claim as they review recent statements and proposals from the airline industry's major trade association, the Air Transport Association (ATA), and from the federal government. For those of you just joining us, the growing debate about GA user fees got its 2006 start earlier this month when the ATA rolled out a new FAA funding proposal dubbed "Smart Skies" and called on Congress to implement it. The ATA maintains that the user-fee scheme it is proposing will help the FAA slay its modernization dragon -- you know, the upgrade of computers and radars the FAA has been working on since, oh, the early 1980s.

According to the ATA, "Smart Skies is a national campaign ... aimed at modernizing the United States' National Airspace System (NAS), and the system's 35-year-old funding mechanism." Switching on the "way back" machine, the ATA dredged up a 1993 quote from the National Commission to Ensure a Strong Competitive Airline Industry: "[The] FAA is severely limited by the ebbs and flows of the federal budget process, and the ability to build an air traffic control system for the 21st century depends on a stable, predictable source of revenue that can be leveraged for future improvements." To the extent that was ever true, it's certainly not true in 2006, as U.S. Rep. Todd Tiarht (R-Kan.) noted last week in a congressional hearing called to discuss FAA funding. Said Tiarht to Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, "It looks like since 1997 through 2006, you've gotten 99 percent of your budget request." According to some observers, the ATA's program to encourage funding of the FAA wholly by user fees is the industry's latest attempt to do financial harm to general and business aviation. According to AOPA, the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is currently reviewing the administration's FAA funding proposal before it is presented to Congress and released to the public. Whether and to what extent that proposal will entail user fees is not known at this writing.