What's At Stake: Lessons Learned From Past User-Fee Fights

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During congressional consideration of the 1982 FAA authorization bill, the user-fee issue got the lion's share of attention, with some proposals even calling for a tax on the new avionics general aviation aircraft would be required to carry for access to the nation's most-congested airspace. A complicated user-fee system was envisioned, with conventional and Mode S transponders used to identify aircraft and their system impact, followed by direct billing -- similar to a telephone bill -- a month later. Another "idea" was an annual tax on aircraft by weight, number of engines or installed avionics equipment. Eventually, the 1982 debate resulted in Congress passing legislation designed to modernize the ATC system and, employing the basic activity-based excise tax system in place today, cover its costs. All of which worked quite well according to most observers. Until the fall of 1984, that is, when federal-budget politics overshadowed the FAA's commitment to users and funding for the NASP and airports was drastically reduced. Of course, with one or two exceptions, primarily resulting from congressional inaction, the taxes/fees levied on aviation system users were not reduced. Most years since then, there's been an annual battle between general aviation, airlines and their passengers -- one fought in the halls of the FAA and Congress -- to fully fund the system improvements already authorized. Rarely has Congress approved full funding; even rarer has been an FAA budget proposing to spend at the levels previously agreed.

The FAA often was its own worst enemy, however, falling far behind on the research and procurement schedules it originally said it could meet, with the Microwave Landing System serving as industry's poster-child evidence. Even so, Congress was definitely in charge and, eventually, hammered out compromises ensuring equal access to all airspace and at least adequate funding. And, according to many observers on the general aviation side of the house, that's where this year's user-fee battle takes on such importance, irrespective of the much higher costs involved or the airlines' bid to place themselves in charge of running the ATC system. Instead, observers say it's the proposal's almost-below-the-radar removal of Congress from the annual -- some say day-to-day -- oversight of the agency and the ATC system that poses the greatest opportunity for mischief. There's no question the FAA and the airlines are seeking greater autonomy and dedicated funding; they've been at this for more than 25 years. The real question confronting industry this year is the extent to which Congress should give up its oversight and turn over to a board of directors composed largely of airline representatives responsibility for long-term management of the ATC system. Based on the ways in which the agency has lived up to its commitments since the early 1980s, the answer should be "not so much." That's what's at stake for general and business aviation in 2007.