It's All About Control ... And Competition

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It's relatively easy for even casual observers to conclude that the reason for the ATA's keen interest in user fees is to somehow reduce competition from the general and business aviation industry. Of course, it's no great secret that non-scheduled aircraft operations have consistently increased in the past few years as airline delays have increased and service has declined. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks did an economic number on the airlines -- leading to rising fuel prices and bankruptcies -- and they are looking for any and all advantages they can get. So, if the airlines can't compete on service, convenience, schedule and security, that pretty much leaves price and access to the ATC system as ways to try to gain some leverage over non-scheduled operators. Since all users already pay fees in the form of "ticket," cargo and fuel excise taxes, among others, one of the few frontiers remaining for the airlines is to try to ratchet up those existing taxes to the non-commercial industry's pain-threshold level while using the dollars they "pay" into the system as that leverage over system access. Of course, any user-fee increases imposed under the current system are merely passed on to passengers, while the airlines get the short-term float before sending it all in to Uncle Sugar. There's nothing to suggest that would change under the scheme proposed by the ATA. With that in mind, the industry segment most at risk -- the coming very light jets (VLJs), combined with NASA's small aircraft transportation system (SATS) technologies -- really hasn't reached its stride. Before that happens, the ATA would really like to make it more expensive.

But the general aviation industry is having none of it, so far. The industry trade associations representing charters, fractionals, corporate operators and manufacturers have banded together in opposition to the ATA plan, while AOPA got right to the heart of the matter: "The airlines' proposal for funding the FAA is nothing more than an attempt to grab control of the air traffic control system and shift costs to other users..." And that's the bottom line in the ATA's user-fee proposals: If the airlines can control the ATC system and how much it costs to use it, they can also control general and business aviation's access to it. The game really has nothing to do with piston-powered aircraft and everything to do with those kerosene-burning VLJs and turboprops, which the airlines figure pose direct competition to their business-class customers. That's the reason they are more than happy to forego any user fees on piston aircraft, with the added bonus of using that position in an attempt to drive a wedge between different classes of GA users. To his credit, AOPA President Phil Boyer would have none of it: "To single out one type of engine or fuel is to ignore the future," said Boyer. Two questions remain: Will the ATA's user fee proposal receive meaningful consideration in Congress? Will the GA industry allow the ATA's wedge to divide and dilute its efforts? For the answers, watch this space.