User-Fee Battle: Deja Vu All Over Again?

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To many, this year's battle in Congress over the FAA's pending reauthorization legislation -- which pitches the agency and airlines against general aviation pilots/operators and airframe manufacturers -- is eerily reminiscent of a similar fight waged in the early 1980s. At the time, the playing field was a bit different, with the August 1981 firing of PATCO controllers supposedly driving then-Administrator J. Lynn Helms' vision of a modernized, automated FAA air traffic control system requiring fewer controllers to handle the onslaught of airline deregulation and, of course, all those pesky business jets. But much of the same rhetoric and rationale was being deployed. For example, the FAA had a plan -- the National Airspace System Plan, or NASP -- emphasizing a new "host" computer system for the en route environment, using increased automation throughout the ATC system as a way to minimize the need for human controllers (and their labor issues), plus enhanced communications to ATC and with other airborne aircraft through Mode S transponders and the Traffic Alert Collision Avoidance System (TCAS).

Another new technology promising greater efficiency was the Microwave Landing System, although the FAA was opposing the then-partially deployed Global Positioning System (GPS) since it lacked sufficient accuracy for instrument approaches, according to a report issued by the Office of Technology Assessment. But then, as now, the major battle was over how the new system would be funded, who would pay more and who would pay less. Other differences between the 1982 situation and today's: For example, no taxes or user fees were being levied on airspace users; the 1970 legislation imposing them had expired in 1980 and had not been renewed. But the some of the same buzzword issues -- cost allocation and cost recovery, for instance -- were being bandied about.